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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

OUTLOOK: Could Switzerland introduce Covid rules this autumn?

After several months of a relatively low number of coronavirus cases in Switzerland, the rate of infections rose by over 22 percent in a span of seven days this week. What measures are Swiss health officials planning to prevent a new wave?

OUTLOOK: Could Switzerland introduce Covid rules this autumn?

The Swiss government has said that “further waves of infections are to be expected in the fall/winter of 2022/2023″.

As in previous waves, “the main objective of managing the pandemic is to prevent an overload of the health system. It is currently difficult to predict the magnitude of the waves of infection and, therefore, the burden on the healthcare system”, it added.

According to current estimates, “it can be assumed that ordinary structures will be sufficient to manage the situation”.

However, unless new, deadly variants emerge in the near future, health officials  expect the new wave to be milder than the ones  that struck in the winter of 2020 and 2021.

There are several reasons for this optimism:

Higher immunity

Due to vaccinations and infections, “it is estimated that 97 percent of the Swiss population has been in contact with the virus”, which means that “immunity within the population is currently high”, authorities said.

Lighter course

This means that unlike the early Covid strains like Alpha and Delta, which were highly virulent, the latest dominant mutation — Omicron and its subvariants — while highly contagious, are also less dangerous for most people.

New vaccines

The new version of the Moderna vaccine, which should better target certain sub-variants of Omicron, will be rolled in Switzerland from October 10th.

Compared to the original vaccine, which was effective mostly against early strains and offered no protection against Omicron, “the new vaccine produces a stronger immune response against the Omicron variants BA.1 and BA.4/5″, according to the drug regulatory body, Swissmedic.

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

Is the government planning any specific measures this winter?

While the severity of the new wave is not yet known, authorities have made several ‘just-in-case’ provisions by, for instance, extending the Covid-19 law until June 2024.

This legislation, which was approved in a referendum in November 2021, allows the Federal Council to maintain and apply emergency measures that are necessary to manage the pandemic. Without the extension, ithe law would lapse in December of this year.

READ MORE: Covid-19 law: How Switzerland reacted to the referendum results

“No one wants to reactivate the Covid law. But after two years of the pandemic, we have understood that we must be ready”, said MP Mattea Meyer.

While no mask mandates or other restrictions are being discussed at this time, the re-activated legislation would allow the authorities to quickly introduce any measures they deem necessary, according to the evolution of the epidemiological situation.

More preparations from the cantons

As it would be up to the cantons to apply measures set by the federal government, some have asked that financing be made available in case regional hospitals have to again accommodate patients from other cantons.

They are also making sure enough intensive care beds are ready for Covid patients.

What about the Covid certificate and tracing?

Though it is no longer used in Switzerland, the certificate continues to be required abroad.

The government will ensure its international compatibility.

The legal basis for the SwissCovid tracking app will also remain in force and can be reactivated during the winter of 2023/2024, if necessary.

MPs are also debating possible rules to be enforced for cross-border workers in the event of border closures.

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