BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The health ministry is monitoring a newly-identified COVID-19 variant that has sparked global fears of vaccine resistance and increased transmissibility.

The B.1.1.529 strain was first discovered in South Africa earlier this week, with scientists sounding the alarm over its high number of mutations that could potentially evade vaccine immunity.

While health experts are racing to determine whether the new variant is a cause for concern, Brunei’s health authorities are keeping an eye on the situation and awaiting more research findings from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Speaking at the COVID press briefing on Friday, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said it will take time to understand the new variant.

“What is known about this new variant is that it has a lot of mutations. These mutations can make the [virus] more aggressive, but too many mutations can sometimes kill the virus.

“If the virus mutates a lot and more frequently, its life span might be shorter,” he added.

The WHO has called for a meeting on Friday to decide whether the new COVID strain should be designated a variant of “interest” or of “concern”.

A variant is classified a “concern” when there is emerging evidence that it is more infectious, causes severe disease or escapes vaccine protection.

WHO has categorised four variants a “concern” since the pandemic began last year, including Delta – the dominant strain in Brunei.

South Africa has confirmed about 100 cases of the B.1.1.529 variant, which has also been detected in Botswana, Belgium and Hong Kong so far.

Concerns over the new variant have prompted a slew of Asian and European countries to ban flights from South Africa and its neighbouring countries.

Brunei’s borders remain closed to non-essential travellers but authorities plan to lift travel restrictions during the endemic COVID phase.

The government earlier this week announced that Brunei will not enter the endemic stage right after reaching the 80 percent vaccination goal as it needed more time to prepare.

The sultanate is inching closer to getting 80 percent of its population fully vaccinated as health ministry data showed that 79.5 percent of residents are now double-vaxxed.

MoH confirms 78 additional cases, 2 new clusters

The health ministry reported 78 additional coronavirus cases and two new clusters in the past 24 hours.

The two new clusters were CA Mohamed Bunut staff house and a private household, bringing the number of active clusters to 133.

Among the 477 active cases, four are placed on a ventilator and one requires oxygen supplementation in the intensive care unit.

Four of the five ICU patients were unvaccinated.