Swiss army admits shortcomings in facing Covid challenge

The army faced criticism last year over its ability to secure enough masks for the population, after the federal government gave the military pharmacy responsibility for procurement of medical goods. Keystone / Ennio Leanza

The Armed Forces Pharmacy acknowledged mistakes in the process of securing medical supplies, including protective face masks, to combat the spread of the coronavirus last spring.

This content was published on February 11, 2021 - 16:40

The pandemic presented a major logistical challenge that the organisation was not ready to meet, senior managers of the army pharmacy said at a press conference in Bern on Thursday. But, they added, “at no time were there supply gaps that would have affected the health system.”

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, the Swiss government asked the army pharmacy to secure medical products, such as masks, personal protective equipment, respirators and disinfectants, for the cantons and health facilities. It was given this responsibility because it is the only unit of the federal administration that has a license for the wholesale acquisition of medicines and the certifications needed to procure medical goods.

Overnight the volume of acquisitions it was handling rose 150-fold from the normal quantity worth CHF16 million ($18 million). The pharmacy ordered 550 million masks and managed to buy 302 million of them. Today the country has a stock of 130 million masks.

"We certainly made mistakes in various areas and we also anticipated poorly," said Werner Dreyer, head of monitoring at the Army Logistics Base. In addition to undertaking a transfer of its entire computer system at the height of the pandemic, the military pharmacy was also dealing with a world market that was under pressure, with longer delivery times than expected, the pharmacy managers said.

There were also reports that the quality of some of the masks was sub-standard and that the army had paid too much for them. Some 94% of the masks purchased are quality compliant, according to the head of the Army Logistics Base, Thomas Kaiser. An audit by the Federal Department of Defense is currently underway to determine if the price was in line with the market and whether quality standards were met.

The army pharmacy, which is now also responsible for storing and distributing the Covid vaccines, said 806,025 doses were in storage. To date 775,425 doses have been delivered to the cantons.

"All orders were processed on time," said Dreyer, who added that cooperation with the authorities was smooth.

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