BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The Ministry of Health (MoH) said it is “only a matter of time” until Omicron overtakes Delta as the dominant variant in Brunei, with the first cases of community transmission reported earlier this week.

Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said it is likely that the fast-spreading variant was present in Brunei by late December or early January, but that the results of genetic sequencing took some time to be completed.

From 570 coronavirus samples that have undergone genome sequencing, 520 were confirmed as the Delta variant, while 50 were of the Omicron variant.

For the Omicron cases, 37 were classified as imported infections from inbound travellers, while the other 13 were of local transmission.

“Everywhere in the world, Omicron has mostly overtaken Delta as the dominant variant … it’s only a matter of time until it becomes the dominant variant here too,” the minister said during the COVID news conference on Wednesday.

The minister said that local transmission of Omicron could not be linked to imported cases — all inbound travellers to Brunei must be quarantined — and that it was likely that the variant spread through other means, such as illegal border crossings and smuggling routes.

He added that through genome sequencing, health authorities have found that several Omicron sub-variants are present in Brunei.

“What we found was that the Omicron sub-variant from imported cases is different from the Omicron sub-variant recorded in the local cases. So we know that they aren’t linked.”

As viruses mutate into new variants, they sometimes split or branch off into sub-lineages. The Delta variant, for example, comprises 200 different sub-variants.

The same has happened with Omicron, which includes the sub-lineages BA.1, BA.2, BA.3 and B.1.1.529.

So far, Omicron cases in Brunei have only exhibited mild symptoms or were asymptomatic, said YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham.

However, he urged the public to get a booster shot “as soon as possible”, with COVID cases climbing to 278 over the past three days – an increase of 275 percent from the same period last week.

Asked if the government would reimpose tighter COVID restrictions, the minister said getting people to take their vaccine booster was more important.

“The government has ensured that boosters are available. However, in the past two to three weeks the booster rate has gone down. By mid or end of February we should have 70 percent already but now it’s still at 40 percent.

To date, 94 percent of Brunei’s population has been double vaccinated, and 40 percent have received booster shots since mid-December.

Studies in the US and UK have shown that Pfizer and Moderna boosters are up to 90 percent effective at preventing Omicron-related hospitalisation.