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France urged to speed up vaccination as variants spread

The World Health Organisation has called for vaccinations to be speeded up across Europe amid the new variant threats, as France begins its AstraZeneca rollout for healthcare workers

France and the rest of Europe are being urged to “speed up” their vaccination campaigns by the World Health Organisation, which said it is “worried” about the threat posed from the new virus variants.

The European director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Hans Kluge, this week called on Europe to “unite” to help speed up its vaccination campaigns, with the support of all the vaccination laboratories.

On the subject of the new virus variants - including those first identified in the UK, Brazil, and South Africa - Mr Kluge said: “[I am] worried. This is the big question.”

His worry is shared by French Health Minister Olivier Véran, who on Thursday February 4 said: “The South Africa and Brazilian variants are worrying us even more than the UK [variant].

“The so-called UK variant seems to be more contagious, but not more serious. [The other variants] are worrying us more, because we have less data on the infections that are spreading, and because certain studies tend to show that there are more re-infections, and finally because we lack data allowing us to be sure if the vaccines will be as effective against these variants."

So far in France, there have been four confirmed cases of the Brazilian variant, including one case in Marseille, in a woman who had arrived from Manaus in Brazil, where the variant is spreading rapidly.

The woman - who had travelled via Sao Paulo, Frankfurt, and Paris to arrive in Marseille - had a negative PCR test as she arrived in Europe, but she became ill and tested positive in the days after.

The other three cases were detected in the Var, Haut-Rhin, and La Réunion.

As for the UK variant, it is most prevalent in Ile-de-France, figures show, and data published in newspaper Le Parisien said that there had been 103 cases of the UK variant, and 11 of the South African in the region - yet the newspaper admitted that the latest figures are a week old.

In its most recent bulletin on the subject, from January 27, health body Santé Publique France (SPF) said: “It is probable that the spread of these variants has been underestimated.”

SPF has issued no further figures on the variants since then, and referred to figures from January 27 in its most recent epidemic bulletin, of February 4.

Read more: Covid-19 variants make up 14% of positive cases in France


France aims to speed up campaign with AstraZeneca jab

It comes as France has said it is keen to speed up its vaccination campaign, with Prime Minister Jean Castex yesterday confirming that the AstraZeneca vaccine would be distributed to health professionals first, in a bid to accelerate the rollout.

Mr Castex said that 1.7 million extra vaccine appointments would be available to eligible individuals “within the next few days” for the first AstraZeneca injections.

These appointments include 500,000 open from today, until the end of February; followed by 500,000 further appointments for the month of March that will open gradually, the government has said.

But the health minister has not confirmed if these extra 500,000 appointments open from today were the same as those that were postponed last week, or were entirely new slots.

The Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for use in the EU on January 29.

Read more: EU approves AstraZeneca Covid vaccine amid contract dispute

Mr Castex said: “[The AstraZeneca] vaccine will allow us to speed up the vaccination rhythm. Thanks to this new vaccine, we could reach the objective of [vaccinating] four million people with the first injection by the end of February.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine is considered advantageous, as it can be stored for a long time in normal fridges, rather than the deep-freeze conditions required for Pfizer-BioNTech (-70C) and Moderna (-20C).

Mr Castex said that the first deliveries of the AstraZeneca jab were expected by today, and said it would be rolled out among health professionals from tomorrow.

In an interview on February 2, President Emmanuel Macron said that the AstraZeneca vaccine would be reserved for people aged 65 and under in France, as recommended by health authority la Haute autorité de Santé.

It will also be administered by pharmacists and midwives in addition.

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