How does a country ever get off Switzerland’s ‘variant’ list?
As mutated Covid viruses spread across the world — including to Switzerland — health officials are trying to separate travellers from the impacted nations from those coming from ‘safe’ areas.
Just as health experts started to think that vaccinations and other protective measures have been successful in containing the spread of the virus, new challenges arose.
The so-called ‘variants of concern’ (VOC) began to circulate, sparking fears that these new mutations would prove difficult to contain.
Though commonly called ‘mutations’ or ‘variants’, there are enough of them that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has given them names, using letters of the Greek alphabet in the order in which they had been detected.
So the UK and South African viruses, first ones to be detected, are called Alpha and Beta, respectively. Next is the Brazilian variant, Gamma, and the latest one, from India, called Delta.
What is the variant situation in Switzerland?
Perhaps because it is believed to have been ‘imported’ to Switzerland by British tourists who came in droves to ski in the Alps in December of 2020, Alpha virus is currently the most prevalent in Switzerland, accounting for more than 90 percent of all infections.
On the other hand, the remaining mutations are, at least for the time being, less widespread.
Latest data from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) indicates that as of June 3rd, Alpha virus was detected in nearly 18,000 cases, the Beta one in 248, Gamma in 32, and Delta in 13.
In each case, the numbers are likely to be proportionally higher, as FOPH qualifies some cases as still being ‘monitored’.
What is Switzerland doing to prevent the spread of VOCs from abroad?
All arrivals from ‘high-risk’ countries and regions where there is an increased risk of infection with the coronavirus are required to quarantine for 10 or seven days — unless they have been fully vaccinated with EU-approved vaccines or have recovered from Covid within six months of arrival, and can prove it.
These individuals don't have to present negative Covid tests either.
Vaccines currently approved in the EU are Pfizer / Biontech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
The most common criteria for this list is that the number of new infections in the past 14 days per 100,000 persons in the country or region concerned "is no more than 60 higher than in Switzerland during the same period", according to FOPH.
Another factor for placing an area on the list is that “in the previous seven days there have been repeated instances of infected persons who have stayed in the country or region entering Switzerland”.
This list only assesses each area based on its epidemiological situation. It has nothing to do with another list, compiled by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) which outlines which countries, or rather residents, can enter Switzerland.
In other words, while residents of certain countries may not have to quarantine when entering Switzerland according to FOPH’s list, they may not be able to enter at all based on SEM’s list.
Then there is another FOPH list, concerning specifically countries and region where VOCs are circulating; the exemption from travel quarantine and testing doesn’t extend to people arriving from countries with virus variants “of significant concern” – even if they have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid.
It currently pertains to travellers from Brazil, Canada, India, South Africa, Nepal, and the UK. This rule is for all arrivals from these areas, including Swiss citizens and permanent residents returning to Switzerland.
The only exemptions are transit passengers who don’t remain in Switzerland and those whose presence in Switzerland is absolutely necessary to maintain the functioning of the healthcare system, or public security and order.
So when, and under what circumstances, will Switzerland remove VOC countries from its list?
The Local put this question to FOPH, but health authorities could not provide a clear answer.
“The discussions about how a high-variant country will be taken off the list are being held. There are no decisions taken yet, it all depends on the development of the situation /circulation of these variants”, FOPH spokesperson Daniel Dauwalder said.
Ultimately, it may depend on how well a country manages to contain the spread of the variant through vaccinations and other means.
The Local will keep its readers informed of any changes in the current rules.