BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei can now detect and track COVID-19 variants circulating in the country as the health ministry has started sequencing the genome of coronavirus samples.

Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar Friday said genomic monitoring is being done in Brunei even before the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Speaking at the COVID press briefing, he said the Delta variant is still the dominant strain in Brunei and laboratory workers are watching out for the presence of Omicron following reports of the new variant detected in Malaysia and Singapore.

The health ministry began genomic sequencing at the end of November and planned to analyse 40 COVID test samples a week in the early stage of operations before increasing the number of specimens when the workflow has been optimised.

Previously, Brunei had to send coronavirus samples to Singapore and Hong Kong for genetic sequencing and results were only available after a few weeks. It was an overseas lab that confirmed the arrival of the Delta variant in the sultanate more than three months ago.

Identifying COVID variants in Brunei was made possible after a Beijing-based equity firm donated a genome sequencing machine to the health ministry in August.

The machine was said to sequence up to 96 coronavirus test samples at the same time and results can be expected within two days.

The World Health Organization said genomic surveillance plays a critical role in combating COVID as it helps countries to prepare for potential surge in cases as well as make quick and informed public health decisions.

Genetic sequencing also allows researchers to study prolonged outbreaks, map coronavirus clusters and understand how viral strains spread.

However, many countries are still unable to track coronavirus mutations due to lack of money and resources. Experts said inadequate genomic sequencing meant that dangerous variants may go undetected and make it more difficult for countries to control future COVID waves.

The genome sequencing machine donated by IDG Capital to Ministry of Health on Aug 26,2021. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

‘No need to panic’

While little is known about the Omicron variant, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said the public should stay vigilant but there’s no need to panic.

“Even though we see [Omicron] cases in more than 30 countries, these cases have a history of travelling abroad. And most people found positive [with this variant] have mild symptoms, especially in South Africa.

“We need to be careful but as a community, we don’t have to panic,” he added.

Scientists are still trying to determine whether existing COVID vaccines are effective against Omicron, but some researchers are optimistic that booster jabs can increase the level of antibodies to fight off the new variant.

The health minister said booster shots are important in offering protection against COVID, and not just the Omicron variant.

Some 2,355 people aged 50 and above have taken their third jab since the COVID booster drive for seniors began last week, he added.

Brunei started administering booster shots to frontline workers in October before expanding access to the elderly.

Booster jabs will also be rolled out to younger adults in due course.

As of Thursday, 94 percent of Brunei residents have taken at least one vaccine dose and 81.4 percent have completed their two-dose regimen.

Today’s coronavirus numbers

Brunei logged 10 new coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours, the lowest daily tally since the second wave began on August 7.

Two new clusters were identified overnight – staff quarters of TM Majeed Supermarket and a private household.

Over the past week, majority of the positive cases (162) were linked to private households compared to 68 cases from worker dormitories or staff houses.

The number of active cases dropped to a three-month low of 395, while the cumulative confirmed infections reached 15,142 on Friday.