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Why Switzerland might have to wait longer than other countries for a coronavirus vaccine

A number of other countries have predicted a vaccine rollout in December, while in Switzerland it is not expected until the spring. Why might the Swiss have to wait so long?

Why Switzerland might have to wait longer than other countries for a coronavirus vaccine
A sign on a pharmacy in the United States tells customers that the Covid-19 vaccine is not yet available. Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP

With three coronavirus vaccines now entering the final research stages and showing high degrees of effectiveness, countries across the world have begun to set up their infrastructure to rollout a nationwide vaccination program. 

When will the vaccine be available in Switzerland and internationally? 

In the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, vaccinations are expected to start to take place in December. 

The head of the US vaccination program said on Sunday that vaccination centres would be set up by December 11th, while authorities in Germany and England have given mid-December as the date of the planned rollout. 

In Switzerland however, the first vaccinations are not expected until the spring. The prediction comes from Swiss medical authority SwissMedic and has been widely reported in the Swiss media

IN NUMBERS: Reasons to be optimistic about the coronavirus situation in Switzerland 

Switzerland is rich so why do we have to wait so long? 

That Switzerland will need to wait longer than its neighbours has little to do with wealth and more to do with the way the country’s medical approval system has been established. 

As reported by Watson on Tuesday, “with regard to corona vaccination, nothing works in Switzerland without the Swissmedic drug control (process). It decides when a vaccine comes onto the market.”

As a result “an approval in December is unlikely. But it should be ready by spring.”

What does Switzerland need to do to approve the drug?

Firstly, Swissmedic will take into account all the documentation and results from the existing clinical trials which have taken place up until this point. 

Once this information has been received and studied, an initial decision regarding authorising the vaccine or vaccines can be made. 

READ MORE: How Switzerland plans to roll out the coronavirus vaccine 

“We hope to receive more meaningful data from approval studies at the beginning of 2021 and are preparing to be able to make a decision quickly,” Swissmedic spokesman Lukas Jaggi told Watson

Does size matter in the approval process?

While the US, the UK and Germany are much larger, evidence from Switzerland’s neighbours shows that size is not a major factor. 

Austria said on Tuesday, November 24th that it expected the vaccine rollout to start in the first week of January 2021. 

The most crucial factor is the time it takes for the vaccine manufacturer to deliver the relevant information to Swiss authorities, according to Swissmedic. 

Given that most governments are likely to receive the information at the same time, it would suggest that it is the approval process rather than the tardiness of the pharmaceutical companies which will delay the vaccinations. 

“There are still too many questions unanswered,” Jaggi said. 

Why does approval take so long? 

Switzerland, through Swissmedic, has some of the world’s highest standards and strictest test approval processes, reports Watson, particularly in comparison with the United States 

Swiss Pharma boss: 'I support compulsory coronavirus vaccination'

“In the USA, there are comparatively low hurdles for emergency approval,” writes Adrian Müller. 

“Put simply, it must be ensured that a drug or vaccine demonstrably helps more than it does harm. 

“In the emergency procedure, the vaccinated people – to put it bluntly – become extended study participants or even guinea pigs. 

“Switzerland is taking a different, less risky path.”

While those in risk groups are expected to be vaccinated first, Swiss medical procedure requires specific data to be obtained about the impact of the vaccine on risk groups before vaccination can begin. 

“Older and risk groups are usually only included in a second step of the approval studies,” Jaggi said. 

This information will therefore only be available later, delaying the rollout of the vaccine. 

 

 

Member comments

  1. Swissmedic’s intransigence is why neither the high-dose nor the adjuvanted influenza vaccine, which are strongly recommended for those 65 and older (due to older people’s lower immune response to the regular flu vaccines), is available in CH. These special 65+ flu vaccines are approved and available in the US and throughout the EU.

  2. Swissmedic’s intransigence is why neither the high-dose nor the adjuvanted influenza vaccine, which are strongly recommended for those 65 and older (due to older people’s lower immune response to the regular flu vaccines), is available in CH. These special 65+ flu vaccines are approved and available in the US and throughout the EU.

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For members

CANNABIS

UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?

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