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Virologist calls for more tests, masks for children

Students at the Provence baccalaureate secondary school in Lausanne listen to a message from the director. Virologist Isabella Eckerle would like to see more testing and obligatory mask wearing for younger school children. Keystone / Laurent Gillieron

Geneva virologist Isabella Eckerle has called for more testing and obligatory mask wearing for younger children at school as the number of classes in quarantine over coronavirus rises.

This content was published on September 7, 2020 - 14:52
NZZ am Sonntag/ilj

Last week two classes in canton Aargau in northern Switzerland were sent home after three pupils tested positive for the coronavirus and two primary classes in canton Geneva were also put into quarantine. It has emerged that 46 pupils have tested positive in canton Zurich since term began three weeks ago, with 254 in quarantine.

Experts have been questioning the role of children in passing the virus on. Currently the Swiss authorities do not consider the under-12s to be drivers of the pandemic and they are not routinely tested.

The problem is that there are not many studies on children and the coronavirus, Eckerle, a professor at the Geneva Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases, told the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday. She says we shouldn’t assume that children are not in the risk group. We know that when children are infected their virus load is just as high as that of adults, she said.

Testing, masks

“One should test [children] as much as adults. This is the only way that we can find out which measures are helpful to keep the infection numbers down, so that we can successfully get through the winter,” Eckerle said.

The professor said she was in favour of pupils wearing masks in primary schools (these schools are exempt at the moment; the rule only applies to some upper secondary schools and this depends on the canton as cantons are in charge of educational matters in Switzerland). But this should go hand in hand with other measures such as smaller classes, a mix of in-class teaching and remote learning as well as good ventilation.

Some schools could be designated “research schools” where you could carry out spot checks to see which measures were working best, she said.

Strategy?

Eckerle’s comments in the NZZ am Sonntag come shortly after she tweeted her views on the issue. The thread also said that Switzerland was “not well prepared because prevention measures varied between cantons and schools” and that there was “no national strategy or guidance & worst, inconsistent testing of children under 12. We need a national strategy based on scientific data, accompanied by scientific studies”. 

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Eckerle has support from Bern epidemiologist Christian Althaus, who told the NZZ am Sonntag that it seemed that children became infected less often and tended to transmit the virus less than adults. “But so long as we don’t pay attention and do tests, we’ll only see a few cases. It would make sense to test children if possible,” he said.

There are signs however that the federal health authorities are reassessing their current guidelines, the newspaper reported. “The Federal Office of Public Health is currently, along with children’s doctors, looking into the question of testing children. This is particularly due to autumn coming up,” it wrote.

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