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EXPLAINED: What is the new Swiss coronavirus drug and how does it work?

While the focus in Switzerland, and elsewhere, has been primarily on vaccines in the past few months, a new medication may also offer hope in the fight against Covid-19. This is what we know about this drug.

EXPLAINED: What is the new Swiss coronavirus drug and how does it work?
Swiss pharma company Roche has good results from its new anti-Covid drug. Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP

The Swiss government signed a contract with local pharmaceutical company Roche on Tuesday to purchase a “promising drug” to treat coronavirus.

The government bought the medication, which Roche developed jointly with a US biotech firm Regeneron, after recent clinical trials showed that it not only treats but also helps prevent Covid infections. 

What exactly is this drug and how does it work?

In technical terms, it is the combination of the antibodies casirivimab and imdevimab.

To put it simply, “clinical trials show that these treatments provide effective protection against severe forms of the disease”, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) said in a statement.

For instance, study findings indicate that people who took this drug during clinical trials saw their risk of symptomatic infection reduced by 81 percent, and their symptoms cleared within one week.

READ MORE: Swiss-American antibody drug ‘effective at preventing Covid infection’

What’s the difference between Covid vaccines and this new medication?

Vaccines are given to prevent coronavirus infections and stop the spread and outbreaks of the disease.

The antibody drug, on the other hand, treats patients who were already contaminated, by “neutralising” the virus, FOPH said.

Has this med been approved for use in Switzerland?

No. However, the drugs that have not yet been authorised “can be prescribed in exceptional cases”, FOPH said

It added that Switzerland’s Covid-19 legislation “provides for exceptions to the traditional authorisation procedure, provided that the drug in question prevents and treats COVID-19 based on available data”. 

Even though this medication is still experimental at this point, “the federal government will cover the costs of these treatments until they are reimbursed by compulsory health insurance”, according to FOPH.

For its part, the regulatory body Swissmedic said that “it gave the go-ahead for the distribution. As a result, this medicinal product is available even before the authorisation decision has been taken”.  

How many doses did Switzerland buy and when will they be available?

The initial purchase is 3,000 doses. The government did not reveal how much it spent to buy them.

It did say, however, that they will be available from mid-May “for certain groups of high-risk patients”.

Are there other promising coronavirus treatments on the horizon in Switzerland?

In August 2020, Swiss authorities signed a “reservation agreement” for the delivery of 200,000 doses of a possible new coronavirus medication. 

If the yet-unnamed drug successfully passes clinical trials and is approved for the market, Switzerland will receive priority access, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) said. 

The government also secured the right to be supplied with up to 3 million further doses.

Manufactured by a Swiss company, Molecular Partners, a spin-off of the University of Zurich, the new drug acts as an “immunotherapeutic agent”. 

At this point it is still under development.

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COVID-19

What to know about changes to free Covid testing in Switzerland

From January 2023, people in Switzerland will generally have to pay for Covid-19 tests. Here's a look at the changes.

What to know about changes to free Covid testing in Switzerland

What’s happening?

The Swiss Parliament says that from January 1st 2023, the costs of Covid-19 tests will no longer be paid for by the government. 

It means that anyone who wants a Covid test will have to pay for it themselves. 

However, Covid-19 tests ordered by a doctor will be met by health insurance costs “provided the test is required to determine any further medical action,” the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) said in a statement.

“Such costs will also, however, be subject to the insurance’s deductible and copayment provisions,” said the FOPH. The test result has no influence on the reimbursement.

Why are the rules changing?

Since the early days of the pandemic, the Swiss government has been covering the cost of Covid tests – at least most of the time.

But testing is expensive – the government spent 2.1 billion francs on tests in 2021, and 1.6 billion this year up to the start of December.

“The continuation of reimbursement for tests that benefit public health would have cost around CHF 100 million in the 1st quarter of 2023, according to estimates by the FOPH, based on a 20 to 30 percent higher test volume than in the past weeks,” the FOPH says.

However, keeping tests free of charge could also lead to additional costs in other areas – such as a potentially greater burden on doctors’ practices and hospitals, the FOPH said.

What’s the reaction?

For infection specialist Jan Fehr, the end of free testing is happening at a bad time.

At the moment, it is difficult to keep track of which respiratory tract infections are having a significant burden on the health system with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza and Covid all circulating at the same time, he told Swiss broadcaster SRF.

“Charging for corona tests from January will lead to even fewer people getting tested and is currently incomprehensible from an epidemiological point of view,” said Fehr.

Santésuisse, the industry association of Swiss health insurers, urged the state to take over the costs of tests again if the Covid situation worsens in future. 

What else should I know?

According to the FOPH, Covid tests are possible in the same facilities as before, such as doctors’ surgeries, pharmacies, hospitals, retirement and nursing homes, as well as in test centres.

Despite tests not being free of charge unless a doctor has ordered them, vaccinations against Covid-19 will continue to be free for people in Switzerland in 2023.

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