Is the UK’s new Covid variant spreading in France?

Only around 22 cases have been identified officially in France so far, but health experts have warned the country could be ‘two months behind’ the UK

7 January 2021
By Hannah Thompson

France “should probably be worried about the new [UK] variant” of Covid-19, the head of government scientific advisory committee has said, as the country is “two months behind” in terms of the spread.

Professor Jean-François Delfraissy, president of le Conseil scientifique, said: “Currently, [the new variant] is not spreading significantly in France. But that is what happened in England: It first appeared in September, and it took two and a half months to reach 60% of the virus spreading right now.”

Professor Delfraissy was speaking on news programme 20 Heures, on channel France 2, last night.

He said: “We have the tools to keep an eye on it, and do everything we can to avoid - or delay - this extension of the virus. I do not think we will avoid it, but we must slow it down. Why? Because we need to vaccinate in the meantime.

“Right now there are 22 confirmed cases of this variant, and a number of suspected cases.”

He added that the public must continue to respect barrier gestures - such as wearing masks, physical distancing, and washing hands - to minimise the spread.

The first case of the new variant in France was confirmed on December 25, 2020, in Tours; a second was identified in Corsica.

 

‘Current serious situation’

Yazdan Yazdanpanah, also a member of le Conseil Scientifique, and director of the new infectious diseases unit institut sur les maladies infectieuses émergentes, echoed Professor Delfraissy’s comments.

He told newspaper Le Figaro: "For the moment we only have a partial photograph of the English variant in France.

“The actual carriers are probably spread throughout the country. But I don't think that there is a significant active circulation of the English variant throughout the country or that there is, for the moment, a very significant spread of this virus in France.”

Yet, he said that he was “taking the current situation very seriously”, as data from his UK colleagues show that the new variant spreads 50-75% more quickly than the previous virus.

He said that the new variant appeared unlikely to affect the effectiveness of the vaccines, but that “if it spreads quickly, it could cause another epidemic surge, leading to a risk of saturation of hospital capacity”.

He said: “Right now, we are concentrating on people who are ill after coming back from the UK...France is around two months behind the UK. But it is too early to tell if [the new variant] will spread across our country. This will depend on the measures taken to stop its spread.”

He said that in Kent, UK, the new variant was already responsible for more than 50% of new cases.

Several hospitals and research centres in France - including in Paris and Lyon - are studying samples of the UK variant, by focusing on people who are returning to France from the UK.

Agnès Delaunay-Moisan, microbiologist at the molecular biology centre le Centre de biologie intégrative et de géné­tique moléculaire du CEA, said: “We feel that it is essential to have a general testing approach across the general population.

“Asymptomatic people can pass under the radar of tests, and can spread the illness. Why is the UK variant spreading more quickly? Is it because it is more contagious? Or has a longer asymptomatic period, or because of another form of transmission?

“By forgetting asymptomatic people, we are putting blinkers on ourselves.”

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