Swiss government: Omicron may be ‘beginning of the end’ of pandemic

Omicron could be the beginning of the end of the pandemic, the Swiss government said Wednesday as it slashed quarantine times and prolonged restrictions to control the Covid-19 variant.

A close up of the Covid vaccine with the word Omicron in the background
Do existing vaccines protect against the Omicron variant in Switzerland? Photo: Justin TALLIS / AFP

“We are perhaps on the eve of a turning point which could be decisive in passing from a pandemic to an endemic phase,” with high levels of immunity in the population, Health Minister Alain Berset told a news conference.

“We don’t know, but Omicron could be the beginning of the end of this pandemic.”

READ MORE: Switzerland to cut quarantine period for vaccinated and extend current measures

Switzerland is facing its fifth wave of cases, though hospitals are not yet overwhelmed. Government experts say the Omicron variant of concern now accounts for 90 percent of all infections.

“Omicron is very contagious, less dangerous, but that is no reason to let our guard down. Nor is it a reason to become alarmist,” said Berset.

The government decided to cut isolation times for people with Covid from 10 days to five, as long as the individual concerned has been symptom-free for 48 hours.

Quarantine for contacts of cases is also slashed to five days and only applies to close contacts — while people who had their last vaccine dose or recovered from Covid-19 within the last four months are exempted.

“However, the situation remains fragile. We have a rise in infections which will lead to an increase in hospitalisations, as we can see in other countries,” Berset said.

EXPLAINED: Why did Switzerland relax Covid quarantine rules?

On December 17, the government restricted entry to certain indoor venues like bars and restaurants only to those vaccinated or recovered, limited the size of gatherings, widened mask use and issued a requirement to work from home.

The measures have now been extended until the end of March.

And from February 1, the validity of vaccination certificates will be reduced from 365 to 270 days to keep in line with the surrounding European Union.

Sixty-eight percent of the Swiss population are fully vaccinated and 32 percent have had a booster dose.

The wealthy Alpine nation of 8.6 million people has recorded nearly 1.6 million cases and more than 12,000 deaths during the pandemic.

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

Though Covid has not been a nationwide problem in Switzerland during recent several months, the virus is circulating again and rates of contamination are expected to soar in the coming weeks.

'Over a million people' in Switzerland could be infected with Covid this summer

While the new wave has not been expected to hit before fall or winter,  Swiss health officials now say 15 percent of Swiss population — more than 1 million people — could catch the virus before then.

This is a large number, considering that a total of 3.7 million people in Switzerland got infected since the beginning of the pandemic on February 24th, 2020.

“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.

At the moment, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) reports 24,704 new cases in the past seven days — double of what it was in April.

“The numbers are expected to continue to rise. Note that most of infected people will not be tested, so the number of confirmed cases will be smaller on paper than in reality”, Stadler added.

Although according to FOPH, nearly all cases in Switzerland (99 percent) are caused by Omicron and its sub-variants, which are 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.

Stadler also noted that Omicron virus can’t be compared with the flu, “because we observe long-term consequences much more often during an infection with Omicron than during the flu. Also, Covid can trigger very large waves, even in summer, while large flu outbreaks are rare at this time of year”.

There is, however, some positive news.

“The most recent data shows that 97 percent of the adult population in Switzerland has antibodies against Covid thanks to vaccinations and previous infections”, Stadler said.

Also, “in the long term, things will stabilise. But in the years to come, there will probably be waves in the summer too”.

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