ASEAN must act together: A harmonised approach to testing standards and vaccines passport is key to ASEAN’s swift recovery

(In picture, clockwise from top left) Hon. Khairy Jamaluddin, Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid,
Dr. Khor Swee Kheng, Hong Jukhee

Kuala Lumpur, 7 April 2021– CARI ASEAN Research and Advocacy (CARI), in partnership with ASEAN BAC Malaysia, hosted the “ASEAN Healthcare Webinar: COVID-19 Vaccine rollout and the recovery of the ASEAN economy” to discuss the issues faced by ASEAN and particularly ASEAN and Malaysia’s effort in inoculating its peoples and navigating policy challenges before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The session featured the Hon. Khairy Jamaluddin, Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation of Malaysia who is also the coordinating minister for Malaysia’s national COVID-19 immunisation program, as well as independent health policies specialist Dr. Khor Swee Kheng. 

Moderated by Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid, Chairman of CARI, the webinar has been organised as a follow-up of healthcare sector related recommendations captured in a policy document named “A Pathway Towards Recovery And Hope For ASEAN” Or “Pathway 225” produced in 2020 by CARI as the knowledge partner for the ASEAN Business Advisory Council and Joint Business Councils. The report contained 225 recommendations aimed to coordinate efforts to help ASEAN business recover and was recognised by the ASEAN Leaders.

(In picture) Hon. Khairy Jamaluddin, Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Malaysia

1. Economic recovery is dependent on a successful vaccination programme

In his keynote presentation, Minister Hon. Khairy Jamaluddin shared that we have seen evidence of successful results from the immunisation programme in several countries. This shows that a successful immunisation programme leads to the opening and speedy recovery of the economy. 

The World Bank forecasts Malaysia’s economy to grow by 6% in 2021 after contracting by 5.8% in 2020, premised on the effective roll-out of a vaccination programme, continued improvements in exports and a build-up in momentum, particularly in consumption and investment. Globally, the World Bank projected the global economy to expand by 4% in 2021 where vaccine deployment and Investment are key to sustaining the recovery.

At the ASEAN level, the ongoing rollout of vaccinations among ASEAN countries is showing a positive sign. The Philippines projects a growth range of 6.5% to 7.5% in 2021, as the economy reopens further and vaccinations begin. In Indonesia, sectors with high overseas demand have partially recovered due to a rebound in commodity prices and expect GDP to grow between 4.5% and 5.5%. Singapore expects its forecast of GDP growth of 4% to 6% for 2021 and has urged businesses to have meetings in the country’s COVID-19-free bubbles as part of its effort in re-opening travel into the country.

“In Malaysia, after successful completion phase one and two, priority will then be given to targeted economic sectors. These economic frontliners by definition are those that are involved in essential industries and are front-facing other individuals through the course of their daily tasks This would include the manufacturing, aviation, logistic, oil and gas, transportation, maritime, tourism and service sectors,” the minister explained.

With regards to the digital health certificate or passport, he said that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had on 19 March 2021 issued an early guideline to suggest the principles, technology enhancement as well as the role of respective agencies that is required to create a vaccination certificate.  Malaysia, through Malaysia Airlines, has begun discussing with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to allow our vaccination certificate that is currently pushed through the MySejahtera app to be accepted internationally.

“Malaysia has also begun discussions with Singapore and China with regards to travel bubbles as there are more than 450,000 people that frequent the Selat Johor border and the second link bridge daily to and from Singapore and given that China is our biggest trade partner the past 12 years with a total trade amount of RM316 billion in 2019,” said the Hon. Khairy Jamaluddin.

(In picture) Dr. Khor Swee Kheng, Independent Health Policies Specialist

2. Three challenges faced by ASEAN: Vaccine supply, confidence and variant strategy

According to Dr. Khor, as of the 5th of April 2021, Malaysia’s vaccination rate is the third highest in ASEAN with 1.57% of the total population receiving at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. This is behind Singapore at 17.95% and Indonesia at 3.16%. Cambodia is just behind Malaysia at 1.37%, whereas the rest of the Philippines, Lao PDR, Thailand, Brunei and Vietnam have vaccinated less than 1% of their populations.

Dr. Khor believes that vaccine supplies, vaccine confidence and a “virus variant strategy” are three challenges ASEAN has to manage in the short and medium term. To manage vaccine supplies, continuous procurement is crucial, with ÅSEAN pooled procurement and regional manufacturing being beneficial to keeping the cost low and the supply constant. 

Second, in terms of building public confidence in vaccination programmes, the public needs to be educated with reliable information and to stem out fake news. The management of adverse event reporting is also critical, and the media must report accurately and responsibly. From a public health perspective, it is crucial to raise appropriate attention and alarm, but without causing panic.

Thirdly, the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic relies on effective vaccination strategies to manage the inevitable virus variants. Effort should be focused on ensuring maximum suppression of the spread of the virus, building adequate genomic surveillance capabilities and vaccinating as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of the virus evolving.

However, Dr. Khor cautioned that vaccines are not a magic exit strategy. “Public health measures are crucial for a phased restart, and governments cannot rely solely on vaccines to get out of the pandemic. Indeed, antibody passports are potentially better than vaccine passports, because vaccine passports just prove that you’ve been vaccinated but antibody passports prove that you have adequate antibodies to fight COVID-19. To restart the economy, there are some low-hanging fruits that can be prioritized, such as digitizing the economy, building the private provision of public health goods (like testing, tracing and isolating) and focusing on supporting SMEs, which are the bulk of employers in ASEAN. Doing all that will help strengthen the resilience of a society, an economy and a health system.,’ he said.

(In picture) Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid, Chairman of CARI and ASEAN BAC Malaysia

3. ASEAN cooperation in vaccine rollout: more needs to be done

Tan Sri Dr. Munir concurred with the viewpoint but opined that the vaccines offer more than just a chink of light as evidence of immunity however hotly debated. Nevertheless, the government must also, concurrently make self-testing equipment available to individual citizens to give the confidence and trust that will allow the further opening up of economies and the movement of people.

“We have been talking about regulatory harmonization in ASEAN for the longest time. Now, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, harmonization in respect of accepted vaccine passports and virus test results is critical for the opening up of economies and movement of people. As never before, ASEAN must act together,” urged Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid 

Tan Sri Dr. Munir thanked Hon. Khairy Jamaluddin for participating in the webinar saying that the minister has a thankless task as the supremo in the sourcing, distribution and administering of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“If the roll-out goes smoothly it will be regarded as something to be expected. If it goes wrong, from unfulfilled supplies, globally uneven distribution and unfair administering of the jabs, all hell will break loose. He is being severely tested. For reasons over and above public health and economic recovery, for the sake of Malaysia, I hope he succeeds.”

About CARI
CARI ASEAN Research and Advocacy (CARI) is an independent, transnational research institute dedicated solely to the advancement and acceleration of ASEAN integration. 

For more information, kindly contact:
Jukhee Hong, Executive Director

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