Sluggish Swiss jab rates up despite anti-vaxxer sabotage

Switzerland's large scale 'vaccination week' concluded on Sunday, with results showing an uptick in vaccinations despite attempts by anti-vaccination groups to sabotage the efforts.

A man receives a Covid jab in a converted restaurant.
Switzerland launched a nationwide vaccine week, which produced positive results despite sabotage attempts from anti-vaxxers. Photo: DENIS CHARLET / AFP

Battling a surge in Covid-19 cases, Switzerland’s week-long immunisation drive nudged up its vaccination rate, figures showed Monday, as the president accepted that few more people may come forward for jabs.

The wealthy Alpine nation launched a “vaccination week” to address the drop-off in uptake of the jab in recent months.

The number of Covid-19 vaccine doses administered during last week’s nationwide push was up 38 percent on the week before, Monday’s health ministry figures showed, according to the ATS national news agency.

EXPLAINED: What will Switzerland’s ‘vaccine week’ look like?

Switzerland had just 10 percent of the population fully vaccinated by April 23, racing to 50 percent three months later on July 29.

But in the subsequent months that swift progress has tailed off drastically. Halfway through November, 65 percent of the Swiss population are now fully vaccinated, with a further two percent having had their first dose of a two-jab course.

With case rates having near-quadrupled since mid-October, the Swiss authorities fear an overload of hospital cases as the winter kicks in.

President Guy Parmelin told Sunday’s NZZ am Sonntag newspaper that it could soon be time to accept that few more people will come forward for vaccination, forcing the country to “limit the damage and promote other measures”, including booster vaccine doses, which could be offered from December to all those fully jabbed.

Covid booster vaccinations in Switzerland: What you need to know

During vaccination week, Parmelin urged anti-vaxxers to quit ‘clowning around’.

He criticised the suspected sabotage of a free concert organised in Lausanne to promote the vaccine drive.

Anti-vaxxers were believed to have reserved most of the seats but then left them empty.

Speaking at a news conference, Parmelin urged anti-vaxxers to rein themselves in, saying: “Are you not yet done with this clowning around?”

It was an unusually strong tone from the president and underlined the increasing hostility ahead of a public vote at the end of this month on Switzerland’s Covid restrictions.

A march through Geneva on Saturday in opposition to anti-Covid measures drew around 2,500 protesters, according to the police, with organisers giving double that figure.

Some 10,900 people have died in Switzerland due to the virus while some 914,800 positive tests have been recorded.

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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?