BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – COVID-19 vaccines will continue to play a vital role in offering protection amid concerns on the spread of the new Omicron variant, the health minister said at a press briefing on Thursday.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said vaccines will remain important in combating the new strain or any future variants, along with public health control measures such as wearing of masks and social distancing.

The minister made the comments in response to a reporter’s question on the health ministry’s plan to fight against Omicron.

Scientists around the world are racing to understand the newly labelled variant “of concern” Omicron, including whether it evades vaccine protection and causes severe disease.

First identified in South Africa, Omicron raised concerns among health experts as it was found to carry a large number of mutations that can change the behaviour of the virus.

The new strain has been driving a surge in COVID infections in South Africa, with the seven-day average of daily cases jumping fourfold.

It is still unclear whether the new strain escapes immunity from existing vaccines as only a quarter of South Africa’s population is fully jabbed against the coronavirus.

Addressing the possibility of vaccine resistance in Omicron, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said early findings from other countries suggest waning vaccine efficacy in preventing Omicron infections but vaccines were still effective in protecting against severe illness.

“They also found that most patients have mild symptoms in South Africa,” he added.

Omicron has been detected in more than 20 countries across the world despite widespread travel bans on arrivals from southern African nations. No deaths have been attributed to the new variant yet.

Experts have warned that early reports on the severity of Omicron should be treated with caution as there is still little definitive data, and differences in immune responses to infections meant that individuals do not necessarily experience the same symptoms.

Another COVID patient passes away

The health ministry confirmed that a 55-year-old COVID patient had died overnight, but her death was not classified as due to the coronavirus.

The official death toll stands at 57.

Twenty-one new COVID cases were reported on Thursday, raising the overall tally to 15,132.

Among the 426 active cases, two are in the intensive care unit.