Leaders of Southeast Asian countries and Japan, China and South Korea agreed Tuesday on the urgent need to develop a treatment for the novel coronavirus that has triggered a global health crisis, while vowing efforts to ensure the stable supply of medical items.

In a virtual meeting with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained clinical research being conducted on Avigan, an antiviral drug developed by a domestic firm that has been effective in treating COVID-19 patients.

(Supplied file photo shows Avigan anti-influenza drug)
[Photo courtesy of Doctors Without Borders]

Several participants expressed interest in the drug, Abe told reporters following the meeting with the leaders including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae In, which lasted about two and a half hours.

Japan plans to provide the drug, also known as Favipiravir, to at least 20 countries for free in order to expand studies on its efficacy.

"Cooperation between ASEAN and countries in East Asia is key as we work to contain and bring an end to the spread of infection," Abe said.

According to a joint statement issued after the videoconference, participants vowed to "strengthen efforts to stabilize the manufacturing and supply of essential goods and services," including medical supplies and agricultural products, by making the supply chain "more resilient, sustainable and less vulnerable to shocks."

Abe said he highlighted the need to keep trade routes open despite the global pandemic. Any measures that are taken by the countries should be in line with World Trade Organization rules, he said.

The prime minister also proposed the establishment of an ASEAN center for infectious diseases, which would be financed by the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund.

[Photo courtesy of the Cabinet's public relations office]

The coronavirus, which was first detected in China late last year and has since infected nearly 2 million people and killed more than 120,000 globally, has cast a pall over the global economy as travel restrictions and lockdowns have been imposed in an effort to contain its spread.

Li drew attention to the blow to commercial activity, citing the simultaneous contraction of supply and demand, massive volatility in the financial markets, and plummeting trade and investment, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Japan, China and South Korea are major ASEAN trade partners, together accounting for more than 40 percent of the bloc's trade with the rest of the world.

Moon pledged to secure additional funding for humanitarian assistance and said South Korea would "respond to the fullest extent possible to any calls for help from other countries, including ASEAN," Yonhap News Agency reported.

Vietnam, this year's ASEAN chair, had initially planned for the leaders to meet this month in Da Nang but postponed the in-person gathering to the end of June amid concern over the coronavirus.

In the joint statement, countries also showed support for the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled for this summer, as well as other major events due to the spread of the virus.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.