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France getting over fifth Covid wave, calls for caution remain

Medical experts warn that while case numbers are down, new variants can still emerge

A new wave of Covid could hit Europe by early summer, a leading professor has warned Pic: Pablo Crusellas / Shutterstock

France is recovering from the fifth wave of Covid but the pandemic is not yet over in the country, and the risk of new variants still exists, leading medical experts have warned.

Professor Jean-François Delfraissy, president of government advisory body le Conseil scientifique, told FranceInfo today: “We are getting out of this fifth Omicron wave, and spring will likely go quite well but the pandemic is not over.”

He said that the fifth wave has “lasted a bit longer than thought due to the climate and a certain level of dropping of barrier measures. We are getting out of it, not only in France, but also in Europe.”

He predicted that the fifth wave should “be finished by the end of May”, with daily infections expected to be at around 5,000-10,000 by then.In comparison, at the start of April there were around 50,000 cases per day. 

Indicators in France suggest that Covid is improving. 

The latest figures from Santé publique France show that 47,225 people tested positive on May 5 (a drop of 26% in seven days), while 6,612 people were hospitalised and 702 admitted to critical care over the past seven days (-24% and -24.1% over one week). The number of deaths related to Covid-19 is equally decreasing (-15.7% over a 7 day period).

However, Professor Delfraissy called for caution. He said: “We were at this stage last year, and unfortunately the Delta variant arrived in June, so we can expect that if a new variant arrives, perhaps at la rentrée [September].

“But we have the tools to fight it.”

He said that the World Health Organisation (WHO) is rightly continuing to sequence variants to check if a new one is likely to emerge. 

He said: “They are right. By definition, in order to take over the current variant, new variants must be more contagious.”

He said that he would recommend people continue measures such as wearing masks “in places where the infection risk is high”, but said that the decision to lift the rules was “probably political”.

“It will be up to the politicians to decide [in the coming months],” he said.

New variant risk? 

Prof Delfraissy’s comments come after Professor Antoine Flahaut, epidemiologist and head of the French vaccine rollout, warned that while Europe and France have “managed to contain the impact of the pandemic since the arrival of vaccines and available treatments”, France was still seeing high mortality rates, and struggling with the high contagion of the Delta and Omicron variants.

He told France 24: “We have not yet managed to avoid a high level of mortality linked to Covid-19. In France, there were 65,000 deaths reported in 2020, 60,000 in 2021 and another 22,000 in the first four months of 2022, i.e. a fairly comparable rate since the beginning of the pandemic.”

He said that should France be hit with a new wave, there would be two main challenges. 

  • The first would be to maintain a “kind of armed peace”, to allow vaccinated people to avoid severe forms of Covid
  • The second would be “tackle the mechanisms of transmission” of this airborne, respiratory virus. This would mean improving the air quality in poorly-ventilated spaces open to the public, including public transport, bars, restaurants, clubs, schools, universities and offices; as well as individual households, Prof Flahaut said.

Prof Flahaut was commenting in light of the detection of two new sub-variants in South Africa: the BA.4 and BA.5. Case numbers in South Africa (where only 45% of the population is vaccinated) have soared in the past few days, with a rise of 50% over 24 hours to 9,757 new cases on April 4.

The Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) confirmed that the country officially entered into a new pandemic wave at the end of April.

Prof Flahaut warned: “Omicron sub-variants are developing at an unprecedented rate. There are several that warrant particular interest from the international scientific community: BA.2.12.1 - which is actively circulating in the US - and the still poorly-known BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants.

“Typically, these sub-variants spread among the young, active and mobile segments of the community, and thus not among those expected to go to hospital. 

“It is therefore difficult to accurately assess the virulence of these new sub-variants at this stage, i.e. the percentage of severe forms they cause. It is known that they are more contagious [than the other variants] since they are prevalent in the United States and South Africa respectively.”

Europe may risk a new epidemic wave “at the beginning of the summer”, he said.

However, he said that so far, the new sub-variants do not appear to be causing more severe versions of the virus, nor excess deaths. 

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Covid cases falling in France but professor says ‘pandemic not over’

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