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.
As The Local reported in June, 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.
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 or people over the age of 80.
According to a press release from July 5th, this recommendation will not change until August.
There has been no change in strategy since then, despite the increasing infection rates.
The 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?
According to the government, the risk for members of the general public - i.e. those who do not fit into 'vulnerable' categories - is too low to justify a second booster.
According to the press release from July 5th, three doses of the vaccine is sufficient at present.
“For all other groups of people who are already fully immunised (vaccinated three times, recovered and vaccinated twice), the FOPH and FCV are still recommending that they wait until autumn for a further booster. On the basis of the current state of knowledge, they are still sufficiently protected against severe COVID-19 disease.”
In addition, the 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 against Covid variants.
Most of the vaccines were developed 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?
On July 5th, the Swiss government said it would begin recommendations for second Covid boosters in autumn of 2022.
Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) announced that second Covid booster shots for general population will be available in the fall, “when the risk for individuals and the burden on the healthcare system will be greatest”.
While Switzerland had a widespread booster shot campaign against Covid, the government has been reluctant to approve second boosters other than for those in vulnerable categories.
People who are travelling to countries where proof of up-to-date immunisation is required but whose Covid certificates are no longer valid, can receive the fourth dose but upon request have to pay for the shot.
A spokesperson from the FOPH told The Local on Wednesday that the cost for a second booster tends to be around CHF60 across much of the country.