BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei will begin Phase 1 of its COVID-19 vaccination programme this Saturday, the Ministry of Health (MoH) announced during a press conference on Thursday evening.
Three vaccines have been granted emergency authorisation by the Brunei Darussalam Medicines Control Authority – Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinopharm.
Health minister YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Md Isham Hj Jaafar said Brunei will receive its first shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines on Friday, numbering around 24,000 doses.
MoH already has 52,000 doses of Sinopharm that were gifted by the Chinese government back in February.
Frontliners will be the first to be inoculated, followed by the elderly (over 60) and students bound for overseas study in Phase 1 of the vaccine rollout.
All three authorised vaccines require two doses with intervals ranging from three weeks (Pfizer and Sinopharm) to three months (AstraZeneca).
YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said the government has ordered five types of vaccines in total, with shipments of Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax expected at a later date.
He added that the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is also being assessed for use in Brunei.
When asked whether members of the public can choose their preferred vaccine, the minister said that due to limited global supply people would have to take what they are given.
“You cannot really choose, but you may not be eligible for certain vaccines,” he said, referring to the different side effect profiles of each vaccine.
Those who have a history of severe allergic reactions are advised not to take the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna.
“In that case, you’d be diverted to the next vaccine available.”
Minister addresses vaccine hesitancy
YB Dato Dr HjMd Isham also addressed vaccine hesitancy, saying reports of deaths associated with the COVID-19 vaccine have been misleading or taken out of context.
“From the Phase 3 trials for the three approved vaccines there has been no evidence to support the theory that vaccines cause deaths,” he said during the televised press conference.
“You hear reports here and there of people dying after receiving a vaccination, but you must remember people die every day whether they receive the vaccine or not.
“But to associate the deaths with the vaccine is quite difficult to do, and so far there is no evidence to suggest that. They are safe to the best of our knowledge.”
He added that MoH will conduct “post-market surveillance” to record symptoms people experience after receiving the jab. The data will help monitor the safety of the vaccine.
His Majesty the Sultan was seen receiving his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Istana Nurul Iman on Thursday, giving a thumbs-up to the camera after the shot was administered.
While it is not known which vaccine the monarch received, the vote of confidence is hoped to boost MoH’s efforts to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the population — a level needed to achieve herd immunity.
According to the ministry’s survey, just 59 percent of residents said they would “definitely or likely take” the COVID-19 vaccine, with over a third saying they were “unsure”, citing concerns over vaccine safety. A further eight percent said they would not, or were unlikely to take the vaccine if offered.
The health minister urged the public to take the vaccine — which is free for all Brunei residents — saying he was concerned over the lukewarm response in the survey, which polled over 50,000 people.
“It takes us being vaccinated to protect those who cannot, such as children, nursing mothers, the immuno-compromised,” he told reporters during a tour of the Indoor Stadium vaccination centre on Thursday morning.
“Thirty percent of people are in between, but we hope we can pursue this 30 percent to get vaccinated.”
He added that certain side affects such as redness at the site of injection were common and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
“There is a lot of false news out there. So the public should listen to reliable and reputable sources. There are many groups, what we call ‘anti-vaxxers’ who claim to be experts but they are not, who claim to be doctors and they’re not. So we have to be careful with social media.”
The State Mufti’s Office also issued a fatwa saying the use of the COVID-19 vaccine is “permissible” (harus) under Islamic law.
‘Authenticate your BruHealth accounts’
As authorities make the final preparations for the vaccine rollout, officials urged the public to authenticate their BruHealth accounts on the mobile app by updating their BruHIMS number or uploading a photo of their identity card.
The BruHealth app will be used to book vaccine appointments once they are open to the public. For individuals who do not have the app, registration forms will be available at every vaccination centre.
There is a designated vaccination centre in each district: the Indoor Stadium in Brunei-Muara, Pengiran Muda Mahkota Pengiran Muda Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah Hospital in Tutong, Suri Seri Begawan Hospital in Belait, and Pengiran Isteri Hajah Mariam Hospital in Temburong.
However, other healthcare providers such as Jerudong Park Medical Centre, Medical Reception Stations of the RBAF, Panaga Health Centre and the British Garrison will also be administering vaccines with doses supplied by the government.
Personnel at the Indoor Stadium will be able to administer up to 1,000 shots per day, but all vaccination centres can cumulatively inoculate up to 2,000 people in a day.
Centres will be guarded by police as well as private security.
The government has purchased special refrigerators for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which need to be stored at -70C and -25C respectively.
When will the vaccine be available to the general public?
The vaccine will be rolled out in stages, and will be offered to frontline workers first, followed by the elderly, and students bound for overseas study.
In the second phase, it will be administered to teachers, childcare workers and adults at high-risk of contracting the virus. The third phase will see the vaccine given to all adults aged 18 and above.
MoH Deputy Permanent Secretary Dr Hj Zulaidi Hj Abd Latif said the start of Phase 2 and 3 is dependent on global supply and logistics, with the next shipment from the COVAX facility expected within the next two months.
“That is not within our control, unfortunately… The next shipment will be through COVAX facility, and then after it will be through our bilateral arrangements [with drug manufacturers].”
So far COVID vaccines have not been recommended for use in children and pregnant women as there is little clinical data on how the vaccine affects these groups. People who have had a severe allergic reaction to any other vaccine injections must also proceed with caution.
The vaccine will be free for all people resident in Brunei, regardless of citizenship.