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France had 60 confirmed cases of BA.2 Covid subvariant last week

Health minister said today that it was not yet clear whether people could be reinfected with this subvariant after having had Omicron

There have been 60 cases of the BA.2 subvariant confirmed so far in France, although this figure is likely to be underestimated Pic: SubstanceTproductions / Shutterstock

Sixty cases of the Omicron subvariant BA.2 – said to be very similar to Omicron but with  some differences – have been confirmed in France.

The health minister said today (January 25) that it is thought reinfection with BA.2 is possible after having Omicron, although not enough is known about the subvariant at this stage to say for sure.

BA.2, which is said to be Omicron’s “little cousin”, has 28 more mutations than the variant currently racing through the French population and is being “kept under watch.” 

Read more: Leading French scientist: variant of Omicron may cause new Covid wave

Jean-François Delfraissy, the president of the Conseil scientifique, the official medical body set up by France to advise on Covid developments, today said: “In Denmark, [BA.2] seems to be taking over. If this is the case, it means that it is more transmissible. We are paying very close attention to it.

“Why would it be more transmissible? I do not know, no-one knows at the moment. How serious will it be? I do not know,” he added during a Franceinfo interview this morning (January 25).

“We may potentially be reinfected with BA.2 even if we have already had Omicron,” Olivier Véran said during an interview on LCI today.

“What the Danish are telling us is that it is exactly the same [as Omicron] apart from one small difference which we need to explore – I cannot draw conclusions at this stage – which is the potential for reinfection,” he said.

“This could give BA.2 a competitive advantage, as it could therefore circulate more widely.”

“In Denmark, BA.2 is the dominant variant, with more than 50% of cases by now. We are seeing this variant in France, and in England, and in the rest of the world,” he added. 

“In the sequencing studies that we have carried out on 10,000 screenings last week, there were 60 cases, but our experience with Omicron has shown us that 60 cases could become thousands within a few days or weeks.

“This BA.2 variant has the colour, the odour and the taste of Omicron but it is not exactly the same as Omicron,” Mr Véran said, adding that it has a mutation “of the protein which is the key allowing entry into human cells.

However, “nothing leads us to think that the genetic structure of this variant enables it to act differently – in the way it infects us and makes us ill – to the Omicron variant.

“It is not more virulent than Omicron [but] we do not have enough information to know whether it is less or just as virulent.”

When will this Covid wave end?

The health minister added that he expects the “Omicron peak or plateau” to be reached “within a few days. 

“We have not passed the peak, even if in some regions it has already been and gone.”

Prof Delfraissy, for his part, has said that “I see things coming back down to base level around mid-March with a progressive, very slow decline in terms of hospitalisations.”

He added that “the Omicron wave is not finished” but “it is different” to those that preceded it. 

“It is a variant which is much more transmissible but clearly less severe. 

“We can therefore envisage a spring of 2022 which will not be spent in the worst of conditions, as long as another variant does not arrive.”

However, he added that the springtime drop in case numbers will not last long: “There will surely be something during the autumn. We are in a long-term epidemic, I have not said that we have finished with it, we are far from that.” 

“We will suffer a lot, even until mid-March. 2022 is still going to be a difficult year,” and we “will be talking about [Covid] for a long time yet,” he added.

Some 108,000 new Covid cases were reported in France yesterday (January 24). Last Monday there were 102,000.

There were 337 admissions to intensive care units, compared with 355 the same time last week. 

“If you look at the figures, we have not gone past 4,000 patients in intensive care,” Prof Delfraissy said, adding that during the first Covid wave there had been 7,000 people being treated in these units. “There has even been a drop in the number of patients in intensive care, and a similar thing is happening with regards to ‘classic’ hospitalisations.”

Are school Covid protocols behind the rapid rise in case numbers?

Mr Véran denied suggestions that the government’s Covid protocol is allowing the virus to spread rapidly in schools and then within the community, [so] contributing to the country’s continually rising infection numbers. 

Read more: Why are Covid cases in France still higher than in most of Europe?

“If there was a direct, obvious, unique causal link [between schools and virus circulation] we would be observing the same thing in all countries where schools are open,” he said. 

During his interview, Prof Delfraissy said that: “We must stop changing,” school Covid protocols, “because families are completely lost.”

He added that finding a balance between keeping children in school and limiting infections was “complicated” but now that “we have started with the current protocol, we should stick to it, let’s be a bit consistent.”

Read more: French school strike: renewed action taking place today, January 20

Read more: FFP2 masks, more supply teachers: new measures for schools announced

Will a fourth dose be necessary? 

When asked if people in France would need to have a fourth vaccine dose, Prof Delfraissy said: “The Covid vaccine is great at preventing serious illness, but its usefulness becomes limited over time. 

“Will older people, like me, need a fourth dose? We do not know.

“We need solid scientific data to be able to say” whether or not another dose should be rolled out.

Mr Véran commented: “If a fourth injection allows us to protect the most vulnerable, we will do it. But if we realise that it is not necessary, we will not do it. The scientists will have to tell us.” 

Read more: Repeated Covid booster doses will not end the pandemic, says WHO

During his interview, Mr Véran pointed out that “nine million people in France could lose their [vaccine] passes if they do not receive their booster dose” by February 15, when the deadline for this additional dose moves from seven months after the second to four months after.

“Vaccine passes will not be removed on February 16 [when nightclubs reopen], it is too soon,” he added. “We will keep it for as long as there is a threat hanging over our hospitals.”

Mr Véran said that reduction in the number of intensive care patients which would have to be achieved for the vaccine pass system to be rethought had not yet been decided. 

Related articles 

The five dates in France’s new plan to ease Covid rules

France’s vaccine pass begins: how and where will it be used?

Do we have to convert our French health pass to the new vaccine pass?

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