EXPLAINED: When will Switzerland roll out a Covid-19 vaccine?
According to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), authorities 'want to ensure that Swiss public gets rapid access to Covid-19 vaccines'. But does it mean that the country is ready to bring a vaccine to the market soon?
At this point, vaccines are still either in development or testing stages.
A new vaccine has been found to be "90 percent effective" in clinical studies, its manufacturers said on Monday.
The vaccine in question, manufactured by pharma giant Pfizer and German company BioNTech "brings great hope", according to Claire-Anne Siegrist, head of the vaccinology unit at Geneva's University Hospitals (HUG).
But Switzerland has no immediate plans to order this promising vaccine, Siegrist said.
That's because "these results were measured very early, only a week after the second dose was given, when the immune system was at its peak".
"In addition, it was measured on young and healthy people. So the 90-percent effectiveness rate will not be the same for everyone," she added.
Samia Hurst, vice-chair of the Covid-19 Task Force pointed out that "the final phase of clinical tests has not yet been released. We need to know more details to make a decision about this vaccine".
"By mid-2021, we should have scientific results on several vaccines," she said.
Which other vaccines are Swiss health officials considering?
"Since it is still not clear which vaccines will ultimately prevail, the government is taking a diversified approach," authorities said.
This means that rather than focus on just one vaccine and one manufacturer, the government signed contracts with several different producers.
For instance, in August 2020, federal authorities concluded an agreement with the American company Moderna to buy 4.5 million doses of its vaccine, once it has been proven safe to do so.
Switzerland is also participating in the international COVAX initiative to procure vaccine for up to 20 percent of the Swiss population.
In October, the Swiss signed an agreement with UK pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca and the Swedish government for the delivery of up to 5.3 million doses of vaccine.
The contract is based on an agreement between the European Commission and AstraZeneca for the delivery of up to 400 million doses for Europe.
What process has to be accomplished before a vaccine is approved for use in Switzerland?
The Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products (Swissmedic) has to assess the safety, quality and efficacy of each vaccine – as it does for all medications sold in Switzerland.
During a pandemic, Swissmedic uses the so-called 'rolling submission' process.
It is a special form of authorisation for new active substances which is intended to facilitate faster authorisation of urgently needed medicinal products. Under this procedure, Swissmedic can review data from ongoing clinical trials as soon as it is available.
"Rolling submission enables Swissmedic to build up a picture of the vaccine's risk-benefit profile even before the pivotal clinical trials have been completed," the agency said.
Currently the AstraZeneca vaccine is undergoing this 'rolling submission' procedure.
When will any of these vaccines be ready for use in Switzerland?
Swissmedic said it will not be rushed into approving a vaccine, even given the high level of urgency.
"No decision on authorisation can be taken until all the data needed to assess the safety, quality and efficacy of the vaccine have been submitted."
However, most health officials say first vaccines may hit the market already in the spring of 2021.
Once available, could the coronavirus vaccine become compulsory in Switzerland?
It is highly unlikely.
Under the Swiss law, people can't be forced to get vaccinated against their will.
However, the vaccine could be required in some cases.
"Immunisation will be obligatory for people in certain jobs whose work brings them in close contact with the public," said Dominique Sprumont, deputy director of the Institute of Health Law at the University of Neuchâtel.
Health Minister Alain Berset pointed out that he is "open" to mandating the vaccine for those who work in the healthcare sector and elderly care homes.
"If an employee refuses, then they would have to work elsewhere, in a place where they don't come in contact with people at risk," Berset said.
He added that if the controversy arises when the vaccine becomes available, "we would hope to resolve this problem pragmatically, as we've always done in our country".