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Covid-19 in Switzerland: The situation is improving, but will it last?

Latest numbers from the Swiss Health Ministry show the epidemiological situation is getting better in the country. Experts weigh in on the prognosis for the coming months

Covid-19 in Switzerland: The situation is improving, but will it last?
More people will catch Covid in cold weather, experts predict. Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

Fewer infections have been reported in Switzerland since the beginning of this week, with the number of new daily cases dropping from more than 3,000 at the beginning of September to 1,632 on Thursday.

Overall, the incidence of infections went down from 390.03 for 100,000 people on September 17th to 290.95 / 100,000 currently.

And the number of ICU beds occupied by coronavirus patients decreased slightly from more than a third a week ago to 27 percent on Wednesday, according to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) data.

There are mainly two reasons for this improvement: the end of the summer vacation means there are fewer return travellers who bring the virus from abroad, as was the case in July and August.

But vaccines also play a role, according to Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute for Global Health in Geneva.

“Vaccinated people are better protected against severe forms of the disease”, he said.

READ MORE: Vaccinations to hospital numbers: How the Covid situation is evolving in Switzerland

Does this mean the pandemic is winding down in Switzerland?

Even if the epidemiological situation is improving, the virus remains active and volatile, said Rudolf Hauri, president of the Association of Cantonal Doctors of Switzerland.

And the fourth wave is not quite over yet, according to Patrick Mathys, head of FOPH’s crisis management section, who pointed out that the number of cases could go up again as colder weather drives more people indoors.

A similar situation happened in September 2020, when numbers declined before increasing sharply again, leading to a new wave in the fall and winter.

“The winter months are fast approaching and the situation could get worse again”, Mathys warned.

The only way to prevent the number of cases from exploding is to inoculate more people before the cold weather hits, experts said.

To date, 54.39 percent of Switzerland’s population is fully vaccinated: The number has climbed steadily since the introduction of the Covid certificate obligation on September 13th, but it still trails behind the European Union’s average of about 72 percent.

READ MORE: Covid-19 vaccines: Why is Switzerland lagging behind other EU countries?

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Reader question: When will Switzerland authorise second Covid booster shots?

Even as other countries have started to administer fourth doses of a Covid-19 vaccine and the infections are on the rise again, Swiss health authorities still haven’t rolled out second boosters. This is why, and what lies ahead.

Reader question: When will Switzerland authorise second Covid booster shots?

As The Local reported on Tuesday, coronavirus is circulating again in Switzerland and rates of contamination are expected to soar in the coming weeks.

In fact, over a million people in Switzerland could catch the virus this summer.

 “More than 80,000 new contaminations per week” are expected in the next two months, according to Tanja Stadler, the former head of the Covid-19 Task Force — much more than during the past two summers, when the rate of infections slowed down.

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

Data from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) indicates that the upward trend is already underway. The number of new reported cases has been soaring in the past few weeks — from below 10,000 a week in mid-April and beginning of May, to 24,704 new cases in the past seven days.

These are officially registered contaminations, but as “most of infected people will not be tested, the number of confirmed cases will be smaller on paper than in reality”, Stadler pointed out.

Although nearly all cases in Switzerland (99 percent) are caused by Omicron and its sub-variants, which are more contagious but less severe that the original Covid viruses, “more vulnerable people are likely to end up in hospital, and long Covid cases are also likely to rise”, she said.

What is FOPH’s official stance on second boosters?

Health authorities are currently recommending them only for people in high-risk categories — that is, those with a very weak immune system.

“There is no need for the general public to receive an additional booster vaccination in the current situation. According to available data, people who are fully vaccinated or vaccinated and cured are still well protected against severe forms of COVID-19”, FOPH said on May 23rd.

There has been no change in strategy since then, despite the increasing infection rates.

However, authorities relented on one point: they now allow fourth doses to be administered to people whose Covid certificates have expired but who plan to travel to countries where up-to-date immunisations are required.

FOPH said these travellers can get “off-label” shots — meaning being vaccinated before the official authorisation to do so is issued — but these doses will not be free of charge.

“The price will be set by the cantons and the vaccination centres”, FOPH said, adding, however, that “second boosters for people with weakened immune systems will remain free”.

Why are Swiss health authorities dragging their feet in authorising second boosters?

As with the original vaccine rollout at the beginning of 2021, which took longer here than elsewhere, Swiss slowness may be due to the abundance of caution. For instance, drugs regulator Swissmedic “took longer than many countries to approve new vaccines”.

This time around, FOPH is taking its time to examine benefits of second boosters for general population (as opposed to at-risk groups).

Part of it may be the uncertainty prevailing over the efficacy of vaccines, which were conceived to combat the original early strains like Delta, not the variants, and sub-variants, that emerged later.

“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).

So when will Switzerland authorise second boosters?

Health officials said they will issue official recommendations “before the summer holidays”, which means shortly.

Two scenarios are currently  foreseen by FOPH: “It may be that an additional booster vaccination is recommended only for people over 65 and those suffering from certain chronic diseases, but it is also possible that it will be intended for the entire population”.

READ MORE: UPDATE: When will Switzerland roll out second Covid boosters?