Super-Rich and Punctual Switzerland Is Also Behind on Vaccines
(Bloomberg) -- Being famously wealthy, a model for efficiency and punctuality and having a big pharmaceuticals industry is no guarantee of success when it comes to the coronavirus vaccination drive.
The European Union’s procurement saga has dominated headlines, but neighboring Switzerland is facing a similar predicament. With shops, theaters and restaurants closed and a public desperate for respite, authorities in the capital of Bern weren’t offering Covid-19 immunization appointments at the weekend. There simply wasn’t enough vaccine.
The Swiss often refer to their country as a “Musterschüler,” or “model student” because of its ability to get things done in time. On Wednesday, the government announced it had ordered more batches, including from two new suppliers. Yet like the EU, a bloc it never joined in order to maintain in control over all its affairs, Switzerland is suffering from acting too late.
About 3.7% of the population has been inoculated, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker. That’s marginally more than the average for the 27-member EU, though a fraction of the U.K. on 15%. It’s also less than continental frontrunner Serbia, a country beyond the EU with a gross domestic product per capita that’s less than 10% of Switzerland’s.
“The government’s vaccination plan has failed,” said Marco Chiesa, head of the Swiss People’s Party, the nationalist group that has the most seats in parliament’s lower house. “We’re not used to such unreliability.”
Officials say delivery shortfalls are due to be recouped in March. Interior Minister Alain Berset, whose department oversees vaccine procurement, said on Feb. 1 the country may miss its target of inoculating over 75s by the end of the month. All adults, though, would be vaccinated by the end of June, he said.
Frustration with the slow rollout escalated when ministers were secretly immunized while senior citizens have to wait. “The government is putting its credibility on the line,” newspaper Tages-Anzeiger wrote on Jan. 15. Government advisers reckon delays to vaccines cost as much as 110 million francs ($122 million) for each day the economy can’t operate normally.
The issue might simply be that Switzerland isn’t set up for the swift decision-making that the vaccine procurement needed. It also eschews state involvement in commercial business. Business lobby Economiessuisse on Wednesday called for a national crisis response group that reports directly to the government and is able to act quickly.
Despite healthcare spending second only to the U.S. and having two of Europe’s biggest drugmakers, the country that hosts the World Health Organization didn’t provide funds for vaccine development.
“The EU supported the financing of production facilities and we didn’t do that,” said Andreas Faller, a former health ministry official who now works as a consultant. “And in relation to the size of our population, we are the biggest pharma producer in the world.”
A spokeswoman for the Federal Office of Public Health said there is no legal basis in Switzerland for investing in domestic vaccine production but is investing into research in the virus. “The federal government doesn’t do investment policy,” she said.
The Health Ministry’s initial purchases from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca Plc. covered only 75% of the population, though it since has more than doubled the Moderna order and announced deals with CureVac N.V. and Novavax Inc. this week.
The Moderna contract was announced in August, but the Swiss didn’t agree to take Astra’s shot until mid-October, in a deal that piggy backed on the EU agreement that’s caused so much controversy in recent weeks. Switzerland also is now requiring more data before it can follow the U.K. and EU in approving the vaccine for use.
Anne Levy, director-general of the Federal Office of Public Health, said on Feb. 2 that Switzerland just faces the same problems as the rest of the world. “We were very successful in the choosing and procurement of vaccines,” she said.
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