France is entering a new stage of the Covid pandemic in which “virus spread is controlled” and the country “emerges from the ‘crisis’ phase.”
This judgement was expressed by Jean-François Delfraissy, the president of France’s government advisory committee on matters relating to Covid Le Conseil scientifique.
“We are just getting out of Omicron,” Prof Delfraissy said during an interview with Le Parisien, adding that he country was “at the beginning of a new era” with regards to Covid.
“Two years on, we are emerging from the ‘crisis’ phase and entering a ‘chronic’ stage. We will move slowly, probably in the autumn, towards an endemic situation, where virus spread is controlled but there are occasional peaks caused by new variants.
‘We will be living with SARS-CoV-2 for a long time yet, but in a different way.’
“With a high vaccination and booster coverage, living with Covid means [...] having a nearly normal life, allowing the virus to circulate as long as infection rates don’t get too high. And reimposing temporary restrictions if the epidemic starts up again,” Prof Delfraissy suggested.
“Living with the virus also perhaps means abandoning that idea of obligation – which has been necessary until now – and eventually arriving at a point where citizens can manage their own lives depending on the epidemic situation.
“We cannot ask the same of an 18-year-old as we can from an elderly person. It will be up to people to choose [to wear a mask for example], to evaluate the risk.”
Prof Delfraissy added, however, that “just because the disease is becoming endemic does not mean that it is not serious.
“It will take a long time for SARS-CoV-2 to become as benign as other coronaviruses.”
Prof Delfraissy also judged that a fourth vaccine dose may be rolled out around October, but only for priority groups whose last dose was more than six months ago.
“We are not heading towards a universal fourth dose campaign.”
Infection rates begin their decline as restrictions ease
Several government ministers have made reference to France’s falling Covid case and hospitalisation numbers this week, as restrictions eased in the country once again.
On announcing that people in France would once again be able to go to concerts and nightclubs, stand in bars and consume food and drink in cinemas, stadiums and public transport, government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said: “The epidemic is clearly in decline.”
He added that, as of Tuesday (February 15), the average daily number of Covid cases has nearly halved over the past 10 days and that the country’s infection rate has fallen by 45% when compared to the same time last week. It is now around the same level as at the end of December.
“Even though the situation remains extremely pressurised” in hospitals, the number of new admissions is down by about 25% and the total number of patients with Covid has also begun to fall – by 6% – over the last seven days.
There are currently 31,091 people in hospital with Covid – although some of these patients will be being treated primarily for other conditions – and 3,235 in intensive care.
When will the vaccine pass system end?
Health Minister Olivier Véran added yesterday (February 16) that: “If we continue with the current dynamic, we could leave this wave behind completely within a few weeks.
“If the current dynamic continues, 15 days after February 28 – so in mid-March – we will be able to begin seriously considering removing face mask rules indoors, for adults and children.”
The government would also think about gradually easing vaccine pass rules, while still maintaining the system in “places which are very high risk such as nightclubs,” which will have to wait until the end of March or the beginning of April.
Prof Delfraissy also suggested that vaccine passes could be removed from the end of March.
At the end of January, the World Health Organisation predicted that in Europe the Covid epidemic could reach its end by late 2022.
‘We cannot go around as if everything is fine’
France’s Conseil scientifique and health ministry may be optimistic about the future of the country’s battle with Covid, but several health professionals have expressed concern over this stance.
Gilles Pialoux, who leads the infectious diseases department of Paris’ Hôpital Tenon, has warned that: “We cannot go around as if everything is fine.”
Prof Pialoux believes that the government should exercise caution when relaxing rules surrounding barrier gestures such as mask-wearing.
“Masks will not suddenly stop being useful when they stop being mandatory,” he said, adding that it is important to stress the importance of these measures.
“When there was a 50-year-long decline in the number of road accident deaths, we did not suddenly say to ourselves: ‘Let’s stop, let’s put the drink driving threshold up, let’s drive faster.
To really finish with the epidemic, “it is not just the announcement which is important but also having a follow-up plan and continuing to monitor” the situation.
‘Demand for boosters declining rapidly’
GP Jérôme Marty has also urged caution when it comes to lifting restrictions, warning that removing vaccine pass requirements could mean that booster uptake falls.
“The message will get lost,” he told La Dépêche. “It is difficult to convince people to get vaccinated when at the same time you are getting rid of restrictions.
“This is especially true with the vaccine pass which could disappear from mid-March, even though the gap between the second and booster doses has just been reduced to encourage people to get the extra jab.
“We are seeing demand [for booster doses] declining rapidly, even though many people are yet to have theirs.”
Around 40% of eligible people are still yet to receive a booster dose, according to government-approved information site VaccinTracker.
“I cannot understand why they are telling people that a Covid infection equates to a vaccine injection: this is far from being the case.
“An infection provides much lower immunity: it does not protect a person against catching the virus again for more than five or six weeks, against four or five months for the vaccine.”
Dr Marty also pointed out that 10-30% of people who catch Covid will experience long Covid symptoms further down the line.
He added that “on one hand, lifting restrictions seems justified to me. Even though I wonder about the BA.2 variant, the epidemic is in decline, that is for certain.”
However, “I do not feel great about the end of the booster dose campaign, which should be pushed right to the end.
“We must continue, we are always at risk of a new variant emerging, and there is a large proportion of people who are unvaccinated.”