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Swiss cautiously optimistic about Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine results

Pfizer and BioNTech stocks soared after the clinical trial results of their Covid-19 results were released. New York Stock Exchange

Federal health authorities see promising data on the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech as a positive sign that a vaccine could be ready by the end of the year. On Wednesday, the health ministry said it had a binding reservation for doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine candidate.

On Monday US firm Pfizer and German BioNTech announced that the first large trialExternal link of their vaccine against Covid-19 had shown it was 90% effective. Thomas Cueni, who heads the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, toldExternal link Swiss public television, RTS, the result “exceeds the best hopes” and that it was “the best news of the year”.

On Wednesday, the Swiss government announced it was increasing the amount earmarked for vaccines by CHF100 million bringing the total to CHF400 million. It hopes that this will help it secure another 3.2 million doses on top of the 9.8 million already secured through deals with Modern and AstraZeneca, signed earlier this year.

Switzerland also participates in the COVAX initiative, a global program to purchase COVID-19 vaccines for around 20% of the world population.

The health ministry also said on Wednesday that it has a “binding reservation” with Pfizer/BioNTech but did not clarify what this meant in detail. Talks are well-advanced with the companies on quantities, delivery dates and prices according to health minister Alain Berset.

In a statementExternal link, the ministry said that “as it is not possible to say with certainty which companies or which vaccines will prevail in the end and will be made available to the Swiss population, the government is relying on several manufacturers for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines”

Similar technology

Health experts in Switzerland say the news about the Pfizer vaccine gives them reason to be optimistic about other vaccines, particularly the one from Moderna that is based on the same messenger RNA (mRNA), a new technology that has never been the basis for an approved drug.

“It really is a very good sign that this mRNA vaccine is now showing this effect,” Manuel Battegay, head of infectious diseases at Basel University Hospital, toldExternal link Swiss public television, SRF, on Monday.

“It has yet to be confirmed by the final results. However, one can assume that similar mRNA vaccines will also show good results.” He added that if the results were confirmed, Switzerland could expect a vaccine in 2021.

MRNA technology is expected to be easier to manufacture at scale. Pfizer has said it will be able to produce 50 million doses this year and a further 1.3 billion doses in 2021. However, this will still be far from enough to supply half of the world’s population. 

In a press conference on Tuesday, Stefan Kuster from the Federal Office of Public Health said it was “far too early” to talk about a timetable. He noted that the Pfizer results were largely based on young, relatively healthy participants. The full data from the trial has not been published, which is why it is important for Switzerland to stay open to different vaccine candidates, the health office said. 

However, in a statement on Wednesday, the government indicated that the public health office estimates that initial doses of a vaccine would be available in Switzerland in the first quarter of 2021.

Other vaccine updates

On Tuesday a Swiss biotech firm called the Swiss Rockets founded a subsidiary called RocketVax to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. The company is partnering with Gigabases, a biotech spin-off from the federal technology institution ETH Zurich, which developed a DNA synthesis technology. Swiss Rockets was founded in 2018 to develop drugs with a focus on cancer and viral diseases.

“It is unlikely that these [first-generation] vaccines will induce strong and lasting protection against SARS-CoV-2. We believe that it is important to develop vaccines that cover as many SARS-CoV-2 proteins as possible but without any pathogenic potential,” said Vladimir Cmiljanovic, chairman and CEO of Swiss Rockets, in a statement.

In another vaccine development, Swiss firm Lonza was selected by the US biotech Altimmune as a production partner for its potential Covid-19 vaccine, which is currently in pre-clinical stage. The Swiss company, which has already been tapped to produce Moderna’s potential vaccine, said initial clinical results from Altimmune’s single-dose intranasal vaccine, Adcovid, could be available in the first quarter of next year.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR