BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei will expand its COVID-19 vaccination programme to children aged 5 to 11 next year, the health minister announced on Monday.

Holding his daily COVID press briefing, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said the health ministry’s technical team has assessed and approved the use of Pfizer jabs for children below 12.

“Discussions are currently being held with Pfizer to bring in the vaccines. InshaAllah, we will receive the vaccines in the first quarter of next year,” he said.

Brunei is one of a handful of countries in Asia that have authorised the use of COVID vaccines for children as many countries are still prioritising the inoculation of older adults who are most at risk of dying from the virus.

The sultanate has one of the highest COVID immunisation rates in Southeast Asia, hitting the 80 percent double dose vaccination threshold on Sunday.

Among the elderly population in Brunei, 96.8 percent has completed their two-dose regimen.

There remains a large gap in global vaccine access despite 54.2 percent of the world population receiving at least one jab against the coronavirus.

Only 5.8 percent of people in low-income countries have taken at least one vaccine dose, according to figures collated by Our World in Data.

Experts said low vaccination coverage in Africa and high transmission rates gave more opportunities for the virus to mutate into the newly labelled variant of concern Omicron.

Given the global vaccine inequality, the World Health Organization last week said countries should consider the benefits of vaccinating children as they tend to experience milder symptoms than adults.

However, it added that immunising children can reduce COVID transmissions and minimise disruptions at schools, which are important factors in maintaining their overall health and wellbeing.

Weekly COVID cases rise 18%

Brunei has posted an 18 percent jump in weekly coronavirus infections, with 445 cases recorded last week compared to 376 in the week prior.

The increase in weekly cases comes nine days after the country partially reopened the economy in its transition towards living with endemic COVID.

Brunei had been seeing a downward trajectory in COVID cases from late October, before infections began to rise again last week.

However, last week’s confirmed infections are only 23 percent of the highest weekly case count (1,880) reported in mid-October.

The health ministry had previously expected a spike in cases once it eases COVID restrictions in the transition stage, but its decision to move towards the endemic phase would largely depend on the hospital occupancy rate and number of intensive care patients.

There were four ICU patients on Monday, compared to the daily peak of 46 on September 27.

Some 22 new COVID cases were recorded over the past 24 hours, pushing the overall tally to 15,058.

‘Not all face masks with valves ineffective against COVID’

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said the health ministry will monitor the effectiveness of wearing face masks with valves in combating COVID, following Hong Kong’s ban on masks with air filters last week.

Hong Kong said the valved face covers only protect the “selfish” wearer and not those around them because it allows virus particles to escape into the environment.

Asked whether Brunei will look into banning face masks with valves, the minister said some face masks with filters were proven to be effective in protection against COVID, especially those that have received the CE certification — granted to products that met European health and safety regulations.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean all of them are not good. It depends on how the person wears it.

“Some can only be [worn] for a certain period of time,” he said, adding that MoH will assess whether masks with exhalation valves should be limited.

Brunei mandated the wearing of face masks since the second COVID wave began on August 7.