Swiss death toll from coronavirus hits 197, cases top 12,000

By John Miller and John Revill

ZURICH, March 27 (Reuters) - The Swiss death toll from the coronavirus hit 197 people on Friday, the health ministry said, up from 161 on Thursday, as the country makes drugs including painkillers from strategic reserves available to cover growing demand.

The number of COVID-19 cases increased to 12,161 from 10,714 on Thursday, it said.

The country has released some medicines including powerful painkillers and opiates from stores that it sets aside in case of crises, said an official in the Federal Office for National Economic Supply, which oversees Switzerland's strategic stockpiles of everything from edible oils to grain.

This comes atop the government's move last week to ration some common painkiller and anti-fever drugs to prevent panic buying caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The government announced it had drafted in military police and an army battalion to help customs officers restrict entry on borders with Italy, Germany, France and Austria.

Smaller border crossings have also shut down as Switzerland seeks to protect its population by isolating from its neighbours.

Food giant Nestle said all its production facilities and distribution centres in Switzerland were still operating. "Supply is currently secured without recourse to the compulsory stocks," a spokeswoman said.

Switzerland, in concert with private companies like Nestle or supermarket retailers Coop and Migros, keeps supplies of between three and six months of commodities on hand.

Hans Haefliger said the strategic stockpiles that his reservesuisse agency oversees - sugar, rice, edible oils, coffee, grains and animal feeds -- are sufficient, so far. In contrast to certain medicines, the food stockpiles have yet to be tapped.

While Switzerland's farmers supply most of the grains for domestic bread production, the country is watching products like rice that must be brought in from Asia and remains in ports in places like India.

"It's a similar situation for coffee in Latin America," Haefliger said. "The goods that must be consumed now, they’re in Switzerland. What will be consumed in the coming months is either here or on its way already. We're talking about what we may need in June."

Switzerland has already tapped a small stockpile of protective masks that are being distributed by the military. Government officials expect that when the coronavirus crisis has eased, there will be efforts to expand the mask stockpile.

"It wasn't enough, that's clear," said Stefan Menzi, of the Federal Office for National Economic Supply. (Editing by Michael Shields)

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