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While around twenty “suspicious” cases of Covid-19 are being analyzed in France, the government announced on Thursday the closure of borders with the United Kingdom. “All laboratories are mobilized to track down this variant of the coronavirus” underlined Jean Castex, without hiding his concern.
<p>While the government is struggling to stem the Covid-19 epidemic, which continues to progress despite health restrictions, the appearance of the British variant on French soil is of great concern. Twenty “suspected cases” are being analyzed according to the government, which fears that this more contagious mutation (from 40% to 70% according to the first studies) will lead to a rapid explosion of the epidemic which would saturate hospital services .
A threat all the more credible as this catastrophic scenario is underway in the United Kingdom, which, taken aback by the skyrocketing number of positive cases, was forced to declare total containment as a matter of urgency.
If the French government has announced new measures, including the closure of borders with the United Kingdom until further notice and increased diagnostic resources, some scientists are wondering about France’s capacity to counter this new variant of the coronavirus. .
On December 20, after the British government announced the discovery of the variant, France had already suspended, like most European countries, all connections with the United Kingdom for 48 hours. The border has since been partially reopened, especially for nationals, on condition of presenting a negative PCR test carried out on British territory. This measure will be “extended until further notice”, announced Thursday, January 7, Prime Minister Jean Castex.
A necessary decision but deemed insufficient by Éric Delaporte, professor of infectious disease and director of the infectious disease unit of the IRD (Research Institute for Development), contacted by France 24. “With the PCR test, there is a window of contamination of 24 to 48 hours which cannot be diagnosed. Even in the event of a negative test, people arriving on French soil should be subjected to a quarantine of 14 days. The risk of contagion is certainly minimal, but must be avoided in the current health context “he believes.
Another crucial aspect in the face of the threat of the British variant: the tracing of cases. The Minister of Health, Olivier Véran, explained to monitor this question “like milk on fire” and announced the deployment of “very important logistical and diagnostic resources”.
Tracing is essential to understand the evolution of the virus, to assess and adapt the response. But while mutations are easy to detect, identifying the British variant is more complicated.
“With the PCR tests we can spot abnormalities and therefore see that it is a mutation. But to be certain that it is indeed the British variant, we need to conduct more detailed sequencing analyzes which are more difficult to do in France “explains Nathan Smadja, infectious disease doctor at Bichat hospital, interviewed on France 24.
“In this area, the British are much more equipped and efficient than we are” recognizes Eric Delaporte. “It is not a problem of skills but rather of organization and personnel because everything has to go through the reference laboratories. Our system is improving, but it is still not very conducive to conduct this kind of large-scale tests. ‘especially since the results must be obtained quickly in order to effectively control the chains of transmission “worries the professor.
If the generalization of this type of analysis is not current, the Minister of Health nevertheless affirmed that the “dubious” PCRs would systematically be the subject of genetic sequencing.
What vaccination strategy?
Despite a stronger contagiousness, specialists remain convinced that the vaccine will be effective on the British variant. “The variant is almost identical to the coronavirus that we know. Now the immune response acts on the whole protein, so we know that the vaccine will provide some degree of protection although we cannot, at this time, assess it with precision, ”says Nathan Smadja.
In France, where reluctance towards vaccines is strong, the government wanted to start the campaign gently. But with the arrival of the variant and the worsening of the health situation, the executive has made a total shift. “The arrival of this new, more contagious form is a game-changer. It is even more important to speed up the campaign, but we have fallen behind. Simplifying and broadening the process will not happen overnight,” laments Eric Delaporte. “When the contaminations curve becomes exponential, the epidemic is impossible to contain. In France we are not there yet but we must remain extremely vigilant,” he concludes.
If the coronavirus pandemic seems relatively contained at this stage, it is still impossible to assess the circulation of the British variant in France. Two clusters “at risk”, in Bagneux in the Paris region and near Rennes were still, Friday, the subject of a health survey.