No new COVID-19 variant detected in Brunei: Minister

James Kon & Rokiah Mahmud

Brunei Darussalam currently has no infections caused by the new variant strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which was discovered in various parts of the United Kingdom (UK).

At a press conference yesterday, Minister of Health Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham bin Haji Jaafar said, “Based on scientific analysis conducted by the Ministry of Health (MoH), the existing PCR tests in Brunei Darussalam are capable of detecting infections resulting from the new variant.

“Although there are no cases of the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the country, our ministry has taken steps to increase preventive and regulatory measures, to prevent the importation of this new virus variant.

“On December 19, the UK government reported information regarding a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that was found to be circulating in various areas in the UK. This variant, termed B.1.1.7 (VUI-202012/01), is caused by mutations in the virus’s genetic code which first occurred in September.

“SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus, and mutations arise naturally as the virus replicates. Many thousands of mutations or changes have already arisen on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but only a very small minority is likely to be important and to change the virus in an appreciable way.

“The health authorities in the UK have stated that this newly reported variant enhances the virus’s ability to be more contagious or transmissable from one individual to another.”

Minister of Health Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham bin Haji Jaafar speaks during the press conference. PHOTO: JAMES KON

Although the variant or strain is suggested to be more transmissible, Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham said, “There is currently insufficient evidence to determine if this strain is associated with any change in disease severity or antibody response or vaccine efficacy to the virus. These aspects are being investigated by the authorities in the UK.

“The concerns over the new COVID-19 variant highlight the importance of identifying and deploying safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19, to ensure that Brunei is protected from these emerging threats.”

He added, “In this regard, the MoH has examined the data and information on the current vaccine candidates. The government is actively identifying effective and safe vaccine candidates and is securing access to these vaccines.

“Both multilateral arrangements via the COVAX facility and bilateral arrangements with specific vaccine manufacturers were held, as well as additional arrangement to ensure vaccine access and procurement for Brunei.

“The vaccine candidates available so far, use different technologies including inactivated viruses, proteins, viral vectors and mRNAs. All these vaccine technologies have different safety and effectiveness profiles, which can only be determined after the results of the Phase 3 Clinical Trial vaccines is examined later.

“Any vaccine that is used will be required to undergo a regulatory research process enforced by the Brunei Darussalam Medicines Control Authority (BDMCA).

“On vaccine procurement, the MoH is also preparing for prioritisation and national deployment strategy, once a vaccine for COVID-19 that is safe and effective becomes available for use.

“A technical committee has been established to develop and implemented a National Vaccination Strategy. Due to the limited global supply of vaccines; the distribution will be done in phases, and priority will be given to high-risk individuals first.

“When this vaccination programme is implemented, each individual can play a role by getting vaccinated. This will ensure their protection and that of their loved ones, as well as the wider community, from COVID-19.”

On effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine in addressing the new strain, Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham said, “At the moment, the vaccine will still be effective against the new strain, adding that “Brunei will expect to receive the vaccine by the second quarter of next year, but this has yet to be confirmed”.