Switzerland approves Covid booster shot for over 65s

Switzerland is set to approve Covid booster shots for people “in retirement age”. The shots will be administered from mid-November onwards.

Switzerland will roll out Covid vaccines from November, targeting the elderly and those in high risk categories. Photo: ARIANA DREHSLER / AFP
Is Switzerland set for a second booster? Photo: ARIANA DREHSLER / AFP

People aged over 65 will be eligible for a Covid booster shot from the middle of November. 

Earlier on Tuesday, Swiss media outlet Watson reported the approval of national vaccine authority Swissmedic is “imminent”. 

The booster shots will only be approved for people in high-risk categories as well as those “in retirement age”. 

UPDATED: How can I get my Covid booster shot in Switzerland?

The booster shots will be administered a minimum of six months after their second vaccination. 

Retirement age for men and women in Switzerland is 65. 

Switzerland has come under fire for stalling on booster shots, which are already being administered in several other countries including the United States, Austria, Germany and Israel. 

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

Christoph Berger, head of the Federal Commission for Vaccination Issues Ekif, said he wasn’t bothered by the delay, which was necessary to collate key facts surrounding the effectiveness of boosters and the duration of immunity. 

“The delay doesn’t bother me extremely. I am glad that the approval is now due on time.”

Berger said that the recommendation will be for people aged 65 and over, and those in high risk categories. 

The healthy working-age population now doesn’t need a booster,” said Berger.

Several Swiss cantons have already begun rolling out booster shots for people in extremely high risk categories, however this has been largely on an ad hoc basis. 

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

‘Especially high risk’

“People at especially high risk can receive a booster dose of a vaccine in order to remain adequately protected against severe episodes of Covid-19,” the agency said.

A third dose is already recommended for people with weakened immune systems.

It can be given to immuno-compromised people after at least 28 days. In turn, the Swiss health ministry said it now recommended a booster shot for everyone aged over 65, with the third dose roll-out to start in mid-November.

“Significantly higher immunisation coverage is necessary to ensure sufficient vaccination of the population, protect them against severe forms of the disease and prevent overloading the health system,” it said.

The wealthy European nation’s vaccination rates slowed dramatically over the summer.

Sixty-three percent of the population is fully vaccinated, and the anti-vax and anti-Covid restrictions movement regularly draws thousands of people to rallies. The single-shot Janssen vaccine is the only other Covid-19 jab authorised in Switzerland.

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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?