By John Miller and John Revill

ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland has begun tapping its strategic stockpile of pharmaceuticals to cover rising demand caused by the coronavirus epidemic, the government said on Friday amid a “vigorous” rise in the country’s death toll and number of infections.

Switzerland, headquarters for pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis and Roche, released medicines including powerful painkillers from stores that it sets aside for crises, said an official in the Federal Office for National Economic Supply.

The government has already rationed some common painkillers and anti-fever drugs to halt panic buying.

Health Minister Alain Berset told a news conference in Bern that emergency measures introduced last week to ban gatherings of more than five people and shutter some businesses were beginning to work.

However, he added that “the wave of infections is still rising, even vigorously rising, so it is very important that we all keep respecting the measures”.

The number of cases increased to 12,161 from 10,714 on Thursday, while the death toll rose to 197 from 161.

The southern canton of Ticino, which borders Italy, has been especially badly hit, with 470 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, three times the national rate.

Berset appealed to people to cancel Easter holidays, particularly in Ticino, describing the situation there as “fragile”.

“I don’t want to see traffic jams outside the Gotthard Tunnel this year,” he said, referring to the popular route under the Alps that many Swiss use to drive south to the canton, which has a mild Mediterranean climate.

In concert with companies like food giant Nestle SA and supermarket retailers such as Coop and Migros, Switzerland keeps supplies of between three and six months of commodities like edible oils, grains and coffee on hand.

So far, other parts of its reserves have not been tapped.

Hans Haefliger said the strategic stockpiles that his reservesuisse agency oversees – sugar, rice, edible oils, coffee, grains and animal feeds – were fine.

“The goods that must be consumed now, they’re in Switzerland,” Haefliger said, adding he was watching closely products like rice that must be brought in from Asia and remain in ports in places like India.

“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,” he said.

The federal government, which has drafted army units to secure its borders, also gave regional authorities the right to shut down sectors of the economy temporarily if needed to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

(Reporting by John Revill, John Miller and Silke Koltrowitz; Writing by John Revill; Editing by Michael Shields and Frances Kerry)