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COVID-19

Swiss government: Omicron may be ‘beginning of the end’ of pandemic

Omicron could be the beginning of the end of the pandemic, the Swiss government said Wednesday as it slashed quarantine times and prolonged restrictions to control the Covid-19 variant.

A close up of the Covid vaccine with the word Omicron in the background
Do existing vaccines protect against the Omicron variant in Switzerland? Photo: Justin TALLIS / AFP

“We are perhaps on the eve of a turning point which could be decisive in passing from a pandemic to an endemic phase,” with high levels of immunity in the population, Health Minister Alain Berset told a news conference.

“We don’t know, but Omicron could be the beginning of the end of this pandemic.”

READ MORE: Switzerland to cut quarantine period for vaccinated and extend current measures

Switzerland is facing its fifth wave of cases, though hospitals are not yet overwhelmed. Government experts say the Omicron variant of concern now accounts for 90 percent of all infections.

“Omicron is very contagious, less dangerous, but that is no reason to let our guard down. Nor is it a reason to become alarmist,” said Berset.

The government decided to cut isolation times for people with Covid from 10 days to five, as long as the individual concerned has been symptom-free for 48 hours.

Quarantine for contacts of cases is also slashed to five days and only applies to close contacts — while people who had their last vaccine dose or recovered from Covid-19 within the last four months are exempted.

“However, the situation remains fragile. We have a rise in infections which will lead to an increase in hospitalisations, as we can see in other countries,” Berset said.

EXPLAINED: Why did Switzerland relax Covid quarantine rules?

On December 17, the government restricted entry to certain indoor venues like bars and restaurants only to those vaccinated or recovered, limited the size of gatherings, widened mask use and issued a requirement to work from home.

The measures have now been extended until the end of March.

And from February 1, the validity of vaccination certificates will be reduced from 365 to 270 days to keep in line with the surrounding European Union.

Sixty-eight percent of the Swiss population are fully vaccinated and 32 percent have had a booster dose.

The wealthy Alpine nation of 8.6 million people has recorded nearly 1.6 million cases and more than 12,000 deaths during the pandemic.

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COVID-19

Switzerland: How likely is another Covid-19 wave this fall?

Over the border in France, experts say a new wave of Covid in autumn is 'virtually certain', but in Switzerland authorities seem less worried.

Switzerland: How likely is another Covid-19 wave this fall?

After a relative lull in the pandemic in the spring, Covid-19 cases surged at the beginning of the summer, driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron sub-variants.

The weekly reports on the epidemiological situation from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) show that the number of new cases kept steadily increasing until about the middle of July, when it peaked at about 56,000 new cases reported in Switzerland in a single week.

From then on, the numbers have been dropping steadily, with 18,204 new infections recorded this week.

What can we expect in the coming weeks and months?

One thing we have learned in the past two and a half years is that coronaviruses are unpredictable, and their evolution (or the emergence of new sub-variants) can’t be forecast with a high degree of certainty.

For instance, health experts did not foresee this summer’s outbreak, believing – based on the experiences of previous waves – that infections are more common in the autumn and winter when cold weather drives people indoors.

READ MORE: ‘Over a million people’ in Switzerland could be infected with Covid this summer

It is also difficult to predict what new sub-variants and mutations could emerge in the future, or what properties they will have.

Next wave and hospitals

Health officials in neighbouring France believe that a surge of Covid cases in the autumn is ‘virtually certain’.

Given the geographic proximity and the flow of people between the two countries, it is reasonable to expect the same scenario to unfold in Switzerland as well.

However, Swiss experts say they believe that even if there is a new wave, most people will have only mild or moderate symptoms.

“The most recent data shows that 97 percent of the adult population in Switzerland has antibodies against Covid thanks to vaccinations and previous infections”, said Tanya Stadler, former head of the Covid-19 Task Force.

Based on the current evolution and forecasts, authorities say they don’t expect the health system to be overloaded with new Covid patients.

This is because “circulating sub-variants of Omicron do not cause more severe forms of the disease than the previous sub-variants”, the government said.

Vaccines

A second booster shot of the Covid vaccine (representing a fourth dose for most people) is already available to people in high-risk groups, but while authorities are urging people to get vaccinated, they also say that if Omicron remains the dominant variant, no mass vaccinations will be needed in the near future.

“The current vaccine does not provide clear protection against the Omicron”, according to Giuseppe Pantaleo, head of the immunology unit at Vaud university hospital (CHUV).

That may change soon, however: both Pfizer and Moderna have asked Switzerland’s drug regulatory body, Swissmedic, to authorise their Omicron-adapted vaccines.

The agency is now reviewing the applications but once approved,  the new vaccines are expected to be used for the second round of booster shots, with the rollout for general public to begin sometime in the fall.

READ MORE: Covid boosters not available in Switzerland until autumn

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