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ANALYSIS: Will Switzerland’s sluggish booster shot rollout worsen the pandemic?

While many countries around Europe have already started administering third doses of Covid vaccine to general population, Switzerland is still stalling. Could this have an impact on the epidemiological situation?

There’s urgent need for Covid booster shots, Swiss experts say.
Not enough personnel and dismantled vaccination infrastructure throughout Switzerland is responsible for delay in booster shots. Photo by Richard Juilliart / AFP

On November 15th, Switzerland rolled out its booster vaccines for people over 65 and those at risk of complications from Covid.

The Federal Council was expected to approve the third shots for general public on November 17th, provided they’ve had their second dose of the vaccine at least six months prior.

Booster jabs were then approved on November 23rd, however the government acknowledged it may take some time until they are actually administered as most cantons do not have the capacity to administer booster shots at this stage

Despite carrying out a widespread vaccination campaign in the summer, many cantons have largely disassembled their vaccination infrastructure and will need time to build it up again. 

Mixed signals

The Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) has acknowledged that “current data, as well as experiences in other countries, suggest that booster vaccination may help influence the course of the pandemic”.

They also say however people under 65 years of age don’t need boosters as they are sufficiently protected by the first two shots, while conceding that  “over time, the protection against mild disease developments and against transmission of the virus decreases”, according to FOPH.

These inconsistent messages have an eerie sense of déjà-vu of how Swiss authorities have mismanaged the pandemic in 2020 by stating that masks did not protect against virus transmission.

Even as other countries implemented a mask requirement in public places, Switzerland still insisted this measure was not necessary. From mid-March until the end of April 2020, when the Covid outbreak was at its worst, “asking people to wear a mask … doesn’t work for Switzerland,” Swiss president Simonetta Sommaruga said at the time

The minutes from the meetings of the government’s crisis units show that at the beginning of the outbreak Switzerland only had two and a half weeks’ worth of stocks available.

“At the height of the pandemic, the Federal Council’s position on masks varied depending on the stock available in the country,” Le Matin Dimanche reported.

Switzerland’s ability to acquire more masks was hampered by a lack of domestic production. At one point, trucks delivering millions of masks made in Germany were prevented from leaving the country by the military. 

The change in strategy happened at the end of April, when 90 million masks ordered by the army arrived in Switzerland.

A week later, FOPH advised the population to wear a mask when the physical distance of 1.5 metres couldn’t be respected, making masks mandatory in July.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: What has Switzerland done right and wrong in managing the Covid pandemic?

How is this situation from 2020 similar to what is happening with booster shots?

Then and now, the government’s indecisiveness seems to be influenced by factors other than health-related ones.

Unlike the shortage of masks in 2020, Switzerland has enough vaccine doses to inoculate the entire population with a third shot.

The problem appears to lie in infrastructure: in what can only be described as lack of foresight, many cantons have dismantled their vaccination centres, and staff responsible for administering vaccines have been transferred to other departments; most cantons will not be able to ramp up their capacities again before the New Year.

This could mean that the Federal Council is delaying its approval to give cantons time to get ready for another round of vaccinations.

What impact could this delay have on the pandemic?

The epidemiological situation in Switzerland is deteriorating. The number of cases is climbing by 40 percent each week and several Swiss experts are warning that Switzerland is on course to reach Covid infection rates similar to those of neighbouring Austria in three weeks’ time. 

When this happens, hospitals will have to make triage decisions about who to treat in intensive care. 

READ MORE: Switzerland ‘three weeks behind Austria’ as hospitals warn of triage

In view of the worsening situation, health experts and politicians are questioning the government strategy and are calling for immediate action.

“Looking abroad, I don’t understand why the boosters are not yet authorised here for the general public”, said MP Natalie Rickli. 

Huldrych Günthard, an infectious disease specialist from University Hospital Zurich, pointed out that if cantons don’t have the personnel necessary to vaccinate quickly, the army or civil protection must be called in to help, as they were during the height of the pandemic in 2020.

He added that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used in Switzerland “are probably delaying the rise in hospitalisations, but too few people are vaccinated and have received a booster”.

Unavailability of booster shots is driving (literally and figuratively) many Swiss residents go to nearby countries to get the booster.

“The fact that they have to go abroad to do this is due to the slowness of Swiss politics and authorities. Now it is crucial that the cantons increase their vaccination capacities to the maximum”, Dominique de Quervain, member of the Covid-19 Task Force told the media.

The Local contacted FOPH to find out whether any decisions regarding the booster shots for general public are forthcoming.

Spokesperson Simone Buchmann has not offered any specifics, except for saying that updated recommendations  “will be published by the end of the month”.

READ MORE: Switzerland approves Covid-19 boosters for everyone over 16

Member comments

  1. If they have not rolled out the 3rd shot by now no doubt there are good reasons.
    Faith in the authorities is paramount rather than the usual journalistic pile on.

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Switzerland to start dual-strain Covid boosters in October

The long-awaited second booster shots will be rolled in Switzerland from October 10th, the Health Ministry announced on Friday.

Switzerland to start dual-strain Covid boosters in October

Less than two weeks after drug regulator Swissmedic approved the new version of the Moderna vaccine, which should better target certain sub-variants of Omicron, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) said on Friday the shots will be available to some groups of the population from October 10th.

“The vaccination recommendation for autumn 2022 aims primarily to protect vulnerable people against a severe form of the disease. On the one hand, people aged 65 or over, and on the other hand, those aged 16 to 64 with an increased risk, for example due to a pre-existing disease or pregnancy”; FOPH said in a statement on Friday.

After that, those “aged 16 to 64, without risk factors and who work in acute and long-term care, or who care for vulnerable people in a professional or private capacity” will be eligible for the shots, FOPH said.Health officials noted that while the number of Covid infection is currently “relatively low, an increase in transmissions of the virus is expected from the fall of 2022. The risk of contracting Covid-19 and the burden for the health system could therefore increase again”.

It added, however, that “the situation differs markedly from that of the last two winters; currently, 97 percent of the population have antibodies against Covid following vaccination or recovery. “People without risk factors are unlikely to develop severe symptoms this fall”.

Dual-strain vaccine

In recent trials, the new Moderna vaccine demonstrated “higher antibody concentrations against the Omicron variants” than the manufacturer’s original Covid vaccine, Swissmedic said.

The previous vaccine was effective against early strains, like Alpha and Delta, offering no immunity against Omicron or its sub-variants, which are currently responsible for all the coronavirus infections detected in Switzerland.

“Compared to the original vaccine, trials have shown that this [vaccine] produces a stronger immune response against the Omicron variants BA.1 and BA.4/5″, Swissmedic said, adding that the new vaccine remains as effective as its predecessor against the original Covid viruses.

Additionally, “a careful review of the application documents submitted on an ongoing basis showed that the vaccine meets the safety, efficacy and quality requirements », the agency noted.

Also, in terms of secondary effects, they are expected to be “similar” to those following administration of the second dose and the first the booster of the original vaccine: fever, muscle pains, and headaches.

According to FOPH, “the bivalent mRNA vaccines, which are tailored to the Omicron BA.1 variant, should be preferred for booster vaccination. However, it is still possible to use the current monovalent mRNA vaccine”.

Additionally, protein-based Nuvaxovid doses will also be available.

READ MORE: BREAKING: Switzerland approves new Covid-19 boosters