BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The government is set to bolster COVID-19 testing to 8,000 tests a day after engaging the services of Chinese genome sequencing company BGI to set up a new mobile testing laboratory at the BRIDEX International Conference Centre in Jerudong.

The inflatable testing facility, named Brunei COVID-19 AirLab, can process up to 5,000 swab tests a day once it starts operations on August 19, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said during a press briefing.

Brunei is currently facing delays in processing COVID-19 test results due to a big jump in cases and limited testing capacity at the National Virology Lab on Jln Sumbiling, which can only process over 2,000 tests a day.

The health ministry confirmed 94 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, setting another record number of daily infections since the pandemic began.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said testing is essential in the fight against COVID-19 as delays in getting test results could hamper efforts in controlling the coronavirus spread.

The test results backlog will not give a “true picture” of the number of COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, he said.

The minister said, “We still have to clear a lot of backlog [of swabs], so we sent a few thousand abroad [for processing].

“With the new lab, hopefully we can push the number of tests further between 8,000 to 10,000 a day and ensure there is no backlog,” he added.

Once the mobile lab is up and running, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said lab workers would be able to catch up with the number of cases every day.

“We’ll know who has tested positive for that day, trace faster and isolate them. From tonight, they’ll start working [at the new lab], but they will be operational for 24 hours from tomorrow,” he continued.

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

The minister further said the mobile testing facility is expected to cut the waiting time for results to “24 hours, rather than four to five days”.

Joining the health minister at the press conference, Second Minister of Finance and Economy YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin Liew Abdullah said the mobile testing lab will allow the health ministry to provide more up-to-date figures of confirmed cases.

“If we are able to announce the overnight number of cases, it will give us a good trend and an idea of how infectious [the virus] is in the country. And it will be easier to manage that way,” he added.

BGI lab team to train Bruneians

About 40 experts from BGI are in Brunei to set up the mobile testing lab and train Bruneians to use the equipment, the second minister of finance and economy said.

Moreover, 30 new scientific officers or medical lab officers have been recruited for the new testing lab, but the health minister said more people will be needed to run the lab in a three-shift system.

Second Minister of Finance and Economy YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Responding to a question on how did the collaboration with BGI materialise, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin said the government first came across the company about four years ago when it had plans to set up its operations in Brunei and expand its regional presence.

He said the government then saw the opportunity to work with BGI when COVID-19 first hit last year, which led to the company helping Brunei secure COVID-19 test kits.

With the surging number of coronavirus cases in Brunei’s most serious outbreak, the minister said the government had to set up another testing lab in a short period to keep up with demand.

In a promotional video, the health ministry said the air-inflated testing lab at BRIDEX was built in about 10 hours.

Samples of COVID-19 cases sent to BGI for variant detection

Asked whether BGI can conduct genomic sequencing tests to detect a specific COVID-19 variant in Brunei, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said his ministry has sent samples of cases to BGI at its regional headquarters in Hong Kong.

He said specimens were previously sent to another country for genomic sequencing but the ministry is still waiting for the results.

“It was a bit slow, so we sent it to BGI in Hong Kong two weeks ago. BGI is one of the labs doing sequencing for WHO too, so InshaAllah, they’ll be able to help us do sequencing faster,” the minister said.

He added that the ministry plans to conduct genomic sequencing tests in the future.

“It’s not just about buying the machine, but also having people with the expertise to [operate] it.”

Lab workers inside the mobile inflatable testing laboratory, which will start operations on August 19, 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Sparks Co

COVID-19 cases continue to mount

There are now 605 active cases in Brunei, with the majority of infections (55.2%) detected in Belait district.

The health ministry Wednesday identified another new cluster in Belait — Lorong Tengah with three new cases.

Brunei’s oil and gas sector has been reporting an increasing number of cases after 22 of the new infections were linked to the Champion 7 oil field cluster.

The Champion 7 oil field cluster is now the second largest active cluster with a total of 48 infections.

Chung Hua Middle School Kuala Belait remains the largest active cluster, adding 16 more cases to a total of 167.

The Brunei Shell Petroleum headquarters cluster recorded eight new cases, bringing its total to 23.

In addition, the Dragon Boat rowing team cluster grew to 16 cases after reporting six new infections.

Three clusters — Authority for Building Control and Construction Industry, energy solutions provider Aker and Institute of Brunei Technical Education Kuala Belait campus, each registered two new cases.

The Department of Immigration and National Registration, Star Lodge hotel and Cluster 477 all reported one new infection.

The ministry has yet to determine the source of infection for 30 of the new cases.

Three people are in critical condition and another 10 require close observation.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said another makeshift facility will be set up to treat asymptomatic and mild COVID-19 cases at Tutong’s Mahad Islam Brunei college, located 2 kilometres from the National Isolation Centre (NIC).

Some coronavirus patients with mild symptoms have already been transferred to the National Service Programme (PKBN) training camp as the NIC reached its 296-bed capacity last weekend.