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Covid-19: Why is Switzerland still stalling on booster shots?

While a number of countries, including neighbours France and Germany, are administering booster shots to some of their residents, Switzerland has no immediate plans to do so. Why is it?

Switzerland may start giving booster vaccines at the start of 2022, but no decision has been announced yet.
Elderly people in Switzerland were the first to be immunised against Covid. But booster shots are not administered yet. Photo by FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP

Swiss media reported on Sunday that Alice Schmidli-Amrein, the first person in Switzerland to receive the Covid vaccine in December 2020, died from coronavirus on October 11th.

“If my mother had received a vaccine booster, she would still be alive,” her son, Jack Schmidli said.

Three other vaccinated residents of the care home where Schmidli-Amrein lived have also succumbed to the disease since early September, and 11 others have tested positive.

In all, 52 people who have received their shots earlier in the year have died of Covid since the beginning of September, Tages-Anzeiger reports.

But despite this increase in the death rate among vaccinated people, the government is slow to approve the third dose.

“The question of whether and for whom a booster vaccination might be necessary has not been determined at this time”, said Nani Moras, spokesperson for the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH).

“In other countries, social pressure has meant that booster vaccinations have already started. So far, however, there is no scientific evidence that a booster is necessary “, according to Raphael Ben Nescher, who heads the special Covid staff in Bern.

The Swiss government said on October 19th that booster shots could be approved in the coming weeks, however few specific details were given

What are the rules for booster shots in Switzerland? 

At the moment, cantons are administering boosters only to a limited number of their residents, primarily those with particularly weak immune systems, but there is no widespread effort to provide booster shots. 

This is despite Switzerland having a plentiful supply of vaccines, at least in part due to the country’s lagging vaccine take up rate. 

Authorities have indicated that more people could get booster jabs early in 2022. 

Several other countries however have already started administering booster shots on a widespread basis. 

France, Germany, Austria, Israel and the United States are just some of the countries which have already rolled out an extended booster shot program

READ MORE: Which Swiss cantons are already offering Covid booster shots?

Why is Switzerland stalling with boosters?

Health authorities are taking their time to review and assess the scientific evidence about the need for the third shot.

Virginie Masserey, head of FOPH’s infection control section attributed this hesitancy to lack of credible proof in support of booster shots, as research studies “have not reached consensus” on this subject.

“We would have to know after how many months the immunity decreases. We don’t see any reduction in protection at this time”, Masserey said, adding that it is more important to inoculate unvaccinated people than to offer boosters.

According to Swissmedic, the authorisation and monitoring agency for therapeutic products, some data suggests that vaccine protection against severe forms of the disease lasts at least 12 months, even with the Delta variant.

Studies are currently underway to assess whether this protection applies to all groups of people and all ages, the agency noted.

However, some health experts in Switzerland are critical of the government’s “wait-and-see” attitude.

“Scientific evidence on the benefit of booster shots can no longer be ignored”, said Dominique de Quervain, former member of Covid-19 the Task Force.

And the infectious disease specialist Huldrych Günthard from the University Hospital Zurich said he doesn’t understand what the authorities are still waiting for.

As far as benefits of booster shots are concerned, “the data is clear, especially pertaining to older people who were vaccinated first”, he noted.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to get vaccinated in your Swiss canton

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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?