Explainer: How ready is Switzerland for a new wave of Covid-19?

Swissmedic is considering the approval request for a Moderna vaccine developed to protect against new Omicron variants as well as earlier Covid strands. Keystone / Pablo Gianinazzi

Covid-19 cases are on the rise again, sparking renewed talk of vaccination and a possible return to social distancing in the autumn. Just how prepared is Switzerland to face a new wave of the pandemic and what measures should we expect?

This content was published on July 13, 2022 - 09:00

The number of weekly cases of Covid-19 is rising steadily worldwide, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean (+29%), South-East Asia (+20%) and Europe (+15%), according to recent reports by the World Health Organisation.

In Switzerland, 46,025 cases were recorded last week, up by nearly 13,000 from the previous week.

SWI takes a closer look at vaccination coverage and immunity levels in Switzerland, and what to expect after the summer break. 

How do vaccination and immunity levels stand in Switzerland compared with other countries?

Switzerland ranks last among the rich European countries in terms of vaccination coverage. Only 69% of the population has received two doses of vaccine. This percentage rises to 70% for those who have had just one dose.

Of course, many unvaccinated people have contracted and recovered from Covid-19. “However, the level of immunity acquired after getting infected with Omicron has not been properly tested in the laboratory to determine how well it protects against other variants,” cautioned Samia Hurst-Majno, former vice-president of the national Covid-19 task force and professor of medical bioethics at the University of Geneva. 

This means that it is currently not possible to know to what extent those who have recovered from Covid-19 are really protected from the latest sub-variants of Omicron (BA.4 and BA.5), which seem to be much more contagious than their predecessors and able to evade the immune system.

The same is true for those who received their last dose of vaccine months ago; they are also less protected against the virus.

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What vaccines are available in Switzerland and how well do they protect against Covid-19?

Four vaccines against Covid-19 are currently available in Switzerland to anyone over the age of 12. They are: Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Janssen and Novavax. Pfizer/BioNTech is the only one that is also authorised for children aged five to 11.

These vaccines provide sufficient protection against severe forms of the disease, but have only limited effect in reducing the risk of infection and mild manifestations of the variants in circulation. This is why the Swiss medical regulator Swissmedic is currently examining the application for authorisation of a bivalent Moderna vaccine, which should be more effective against the new Omicron variants and also protect against the original variants.

Swissmedic has, however, given no indication of the specific timeframe for approval of this vaccine.

Will everyone get a fourth dose of vaccine?

The Federal Office of Public Health believes that a second booster dose should be recommended for the entire population, with priority going to the over-65s, vulnerable people, pregnant women and healthcare workers. It is unlikely, though, that such a decision will be made before the autumn, as there are still many unknowns – such as how well the vaccines protect against the new Omicron BA.5 variant.

However, given the spike in cases since early June and the wider spread of this variant, the Federal Office of Public Health recommends that the cantons immediately start offering second booster shots to people who are severely immunocompromised or over 80 years old.

Will children under five soon be eligible for the Covid vaccine?

In some countries, including the United States, children under the age of five can be vaccinated against Covid-19. This is not the case in Switzerland, although Swissmedic is currently evaluating the use of Moderna for children between six months and five years of age. Again, the timeframe for approval is not known – though Hurst-Majno would urge the regulatory authority to review the data and make a decision promptly one way or the other.

What measures should we expect in autumn?

In Switzerland, it is up to the individual cantons to decide on implementing measures to stem the spread of Covid-19. So far, the Swiss health authorities have only issued recommendations on vaccinations and have left other measures, such as mask-wearing, up to individual responsibility.

In other countries, however, a possible return to the use of masks on public transport and in indoor areas is already under discussion. The French minister of health has recommended this course of action.

Such steps might prove necessary in order to ensure continued access to hospital care and to protect people with compromised immune systems. “Society must be accessible to all”, stressed Hurst-Majno.

Should we be worried?

The increase in the number of cases is completely normal and depends on the development of more infectious variants and their ability to evade immune defenses. There is, moreover, no scientific evidence that the BA.4 and BA.5 mutations are more dangerous or cause worse symptoms or more fatalities than the earlier Omicron variants. This does not mean that we are in the clear though, by any means. In addition to a decline in herd immunity, hospitals are not as well equipped as they were in 2020 and long Covid is still a concern, Hurst-Majno warned.

Translated from Italian by Julia Bassam/vm

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