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Covid-19 testing in France: Your FAQs

Testing for Covid-19 is not systematic in France, even if you have symptoms. So who can get a test, where, and how does it work? We translate answers from senior biologist, Dr François Blanchecotte.

8 April 2020
By Connexion journalist

Currently, only polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are permitted, on prescription (as opposed to blood tests, which are currently being trialled). The majority of people with symptoms who do not require hospitalisation are no longer being systematically tested.

Read more: France trials new Covid-19 blood test as labs mobilise

French health minister Olivier Véran has stated: “We will reach 50,000 PCR tests per day by the end of April, notably thanks to the installation of several high-speed machines across France.”

But who is entitled to a test, and how does it work?

Dr Blanchecotte, president of biologist union le Syndicat des Biologistes (SDB), answered these questions and more in Santé Magazine on the current testing situation in France. We translate (translation by Connexion).

What is the PCR test for Covid-19?

The test includes using a long cotton swab inserted into the nasal cavity to swab deep nasal cells that would confirm the presence - or not - of the virus. This is known as a nasopharyngeal swab. To help avoid false negatives, both nostrils are often swabbed.

In some acutely-ill individuals, a sample of the throat or bronchial tubes may also be taken, as the virus moves gradually through the respiratory tract.

All PCR tests are currently only permitted to be done by health professionals.

Dr Blanchecotte said: “It takes only a few seconds and can be more or less painful depending on the sensitivity of each individual. The aim is to detect a strand of DNA belonging to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes Covid-19.”

Who can get tested?

Individuals with symptoms - such as a dry cough or fever - who have a prescription for a test from a GP or other healthcare professional.

Tests are more likely to be prescribed to someone in an at-risk category - such as the elderly, the immuno-compromised, or pregnant women - or if you have breathing difficulties.

This strict prescription of tests is intended to help manage frail and severely-affected individuals first. If you do not have severe symptoms, you are advised to self-isolate at home completely, and not visit a GP or seek a test. You cannot request a test yourself, without a clear prescription.

The public should only call the SAMU emergency number 15 if the patient is suffering life-threatening symptoms, such as struggling to breathe.


Where are tests done?

Previously, tests were only permitted to be done in hospitals. But from Saturday March 7, town laboratories with PSM2 certification are now allowed to perform the tests. Yet, not all town labs have the necessary equipment.

National medical group l'Académie Nationale de Médecine has recommended that this list of authorised laboratories be expanded to allow other types of labs, such as research centres, to test.

Samples of patients are not taken in the lab itself, to help protect staff from possible infection. They are either done in the patient’s vehicle, or even from their home.

Professor Blanchecotte said: “We cannot accommodate a patient in our [lab] waiting rooms, who risks contaminating all patients and our staff. That would weaken the chain of care and the healthcare system as a whole.”

How long does it take to get results?

A decree states that patients must receive their results within 24 hours. In practice, most test results come back within three to six hours after the sample was first submitted for analysis.

How much does the test cost?

A PCR test in a town laboratory costs €54, with 60% reimbursed by la Sécurité Sociale, and the rest covered by mutuelle insurance companies.

Tests done in hospitals have, until now, been billed at €135 under the national T2A (Tarification à l'Activité) hospital financing scheme.

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