BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei is racing against time to address the increasing demand for COVID-19 testing, which has resulted in laboratories experiencing backlogs in processing swab samples as the number of coronavirus continue to climb.

The sultanate registered 83 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, breaking the record of daily new infections for the third time in a week. The new cases included 79 locally transmitted infections.

During the COVID-19 press briefing, YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham Hj Jaafar said laboratories would need to “catch up” with processing swab tests before the ministry can better gauge the coronavirus transmission rate.

He said it is still “too early” to calculate the reproductive number (R-naught) — a metric used to study the way a disease spreads — because the test results backlog will not reflect the “real situation” of the current outbreak.

“We will wait for another week or two when we have the real figure,” he said in response to a question on Brunei’s R-naught value in the current COVID-19 outbreak.

The government built a new virology lab in March last year to speed up testing from 1,000 to over 2,000 tests a day, but the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases over the past week has prompted the need for more testing.

On average, the ministry administered 2,258 tests a day in the past seven days.

The minister said the government plans to build another testing facility that would increase capacity to 8,000 tests per day, but that bringing in the equipment would take some time.

Health minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Early data show high transmissibility

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said the serial interval, which measures the time taken for a person to get infected, has shortened by half in the latest outbreak compared to the first wave of infections last year.

“It was about 5.2 days last year but it’s about 2.6 days in this second wave.

“This shows that it’s easily transmissible. That’s why we need to be faster this time in terms of containment,” he added.

As genome sequencing tests are not available in Brunei, the ministry is currently unable to determine whether the fast-spreading Delta variant has driven the surge in COVID-19 infections.

Brunei detected 384 cases over the past nine days when the second wave of COVID-19 started, as opposed to 68 infections in the first nine days of last year’s outbreak.

Two new clusters

Giving an update on the new cases, the minister said two new COVID-19 clusters have been identified and linked to previous cases – Clusters 495 (2 new cases) and 535 (1 new case).

The largest active cluster – Chung Hua Middle School Kuala Belait (CHMS KB)– has expanded to 131 cases after 29 more infections were recorded.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said cases in the CHMS KB cluster continued to increase because students are “very mobile”, spreading the virus while moving from one place to another in a short period of time.

On Saturday, the minister said one in three of the active COVID-19 cases were students.

Meanwhile, six new infections have been linked to Cluster 477, raising its total to 12.

The Department of Immigration and National Registration cluster added another four new cases to a total of 21.

The Champion 7 oil field cluster now has 11 cases after reporting three new infections.

Both the oil firm TOTAL cluster and Brunei Shell Petroleum headquarters cluster recorded one new case each, bringing their total tally to 20 and 5, respectively.

Four new cases were imported from Manila, while 32 of the new infections are currently unlinked.

Two patients remain in critical condition and another two require close observation.

There are a total of 391 active cases, while the cumulative COVID-19 tally reached 723.

Some of the active cases have been transferred to a makeshift treatment centre at the National Service Programme (PKBN) training camp on Saturday as all 296 beds at the National Isolation Centre (NIC) are occupied.

The minister said medical experts at the NIC assess the health condition of the patients, including the number of days they had symptoms, before they are moved to the PKBN camp.

In this file photo from March 13, 2017, the sultan tours the new PKBN dormitory in Temburong, March 13, 2017. Photo: Infofoto

‘We have to live with COVID-19’

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said Bruneians will have to learn to live with COVID-19 because it may not disappear and could become endemic.

“It’s not gone for more than a year, so I think we have to live with it. What’s important here is the vaccination programme,” he said when asked for his thoughts on Singapore’s decision to treat the virus as endemic.

The minister noted that other viruses such as H1N1 have turned endemic as there are still patients admitted to hospitals with H1N1 flu.

“But now the [coronavirus] is very contagious. It can weaken the healthcare system so we need to control it through social distancing and increase vaccination at the same time.

“If 70 to 80 percent of the country gets vaccinated, then we will be able to contain it from a health perspective. That’s the aim,” he said, adding that getting inoculated is one way to live with COVID-19.