Lateral flow tests France: Shortages at pharmacies as demand rises

Rise in number of children being tested suggested as major cause with the situation impacted too by general stock and staff shortages

8 December 2021

Demand for rapid antigen tests in France is soaring as the fifth wave of Covid continues Pic: Angel Soler Gollonet / Shutterstock

By Hannah Thompson

Pharmacies across France are reporting high demand Covid lateral flow tests due to a rise in people requesting tests for themselves, contact cases, and children as the fifth wave continues.

Official health authority figures show that the daily number of lateral flow (rapid antigen or antigéniques tests in French) and PCR tests being taken rose by almost 40% in the last week of November (November 22-28), compared to the week before, to reach more than four million.

During that week (November 22-28), an average of 37,000 new cases were being confirmed per day. This has now risen by more than 50% since the start of December.

The latest statistics available show that on December 7, over 59,000 new cases were recorded.

One pharmacist in the Austerlitz station in Paris, Mireille Grand, told Le Monde that she had been informed of a “national shortage” of tests, and would need to make do with the stock she already has, despite the rising demand and long queues outside.

Brice Laurin, another pharmacist, in Blois, Loir-et-Cher, said: “This is the first time since I’ve been doing tests that I have had this problem getting hold of them. All my suppliers are running out. One wholesaler got me a box this morning, but it means always having to be on your toes.

“Yesterday, we had almost nothing for a few hours so I had to start prioritising people for testing.”

The rise in demand comes as lateral flow tests must now have been taken within the past 24 hours to be valid on a health pass, rather than the 72 hours previously. 

Are children the cause of stock shortage?

Increased testing in children is also contributing to the shortage, as all pupils in primary school classes must now be tested regularly, with classes being closed if three or more pupils test positive.

It comes as Prime Minister Jean Castex announced only a slight tightening of some measures in primary schools, despite figures from Santé publique France suggesting that the virus is spreading rapidly among children aged 6-10.

Read more: France announces six new Covid measures in bid to combat fifth wave

The figures show that there were more than 900 cases per week per 100,000 children aged 6-10, compared to 377 among the adult population. 

The number of tests being taken by children has soared; with more than 17,000 per 100,000 children compared to 5,400 per 100,000 adults. And between November 22-28, children aged under 15 represented 23% of positive tests, out of 1.2 million tests taken per day.

So far, only children aged 12 and over have access to the vaccines – although Health Minister Olivier Véran said this week that this may change before the end of December, pending approval from health authorities. 

He also confirmed that from December 15, children aged 5-11 and most at-risk would be able to get a vaccine.

Meanwhile, Pierre Béguerie, president of pharmacy council le conseil central de l’ordre des pharmaciens titulaires d’officine, told Le Monde that children’s tests were causing an “undeniable snowball effect” on the shortage.

One mother in Blois said that she had driven 60km from her home in Orléans to get a test for her two daughters, the eldest of which is a contact case after a pupil in her class tested positive. 

She said: “In Orléans, via Doctolib, you have to wait two days to get an appointment. After two hours of searching, I found this appointment here.

“Yesterday evening, by email, the school informed us of a positive case and instructed us to test each child…But I don’t understand why a collective screening has not been organised. Instead, we are left in the wild, trying to get a test in the middle of a medical desert. I had to take time off work to do this.”

But one pharmacist said that children alone cannot be blamed for the shortage.

Olivier Gozé, who manages the Trois-Clés in the centre of Blois, told Le Monde that he is conducting lateral flow tests every five minutes, from Monday to Saturday, in a little area at the back of the pharmacy, with demand peaking at up to 150 tests per day.

He said: "There is a great deal of pressure on deliveries of lateral flow tests. At present, it takes ten days to receive an order. As for self-tests, they are nowhere to be found. 

“There are also saliva tests, which are ideal for a six-year-old, for example, but only labs can offer them, their waiting lines are long and they are closed on Saturdays. So, no, I won't let it be said that children are the cause of the tension over tests in pharmacies.”

Testing only by appointment in some areas

Yet, the shortage of tests has led one pharmacist, Olivier Idot at the Château pharmacie, also in Blois, to stop testing completely. He said: “It has become impossible to get hold of them, not to mention the fact that I can’t find any assistants [who can help].”

Paul Florion, from the Seille pharmacy in Marly, near Metz (Grand Est), where daily testing rates have tripled in three months, also told Le Monde that he is no longer offering tests except by prior appointment. 

He said: “It would not be manageable otherwise. As well as more tests and our normal activities, we are also having to do the flu vaccinations and the anti-Covid vaccinations. It is extremely difficult.”

Yet, he said that the new system means he is now “managing” and there are no longer queues outside. He said: “Right now, it is still possible to get an appointment in and around Metz within 12 hours. But the situation could worsen.”

François Joppin, spokesperson for the Biogroup lab, which is contacted to confirm positive lateral flow tests with subsequent PCRs, said that the issue was not so much the shortage of tests but the lack of personnel available to administer them. 

He said: “If this wave continues, we will have a problem over the Christmas holidays, what with holidays and a lack of staff. There will not be any problems with stock, we have lots. But in contrast, we are very worried by the lack of human resources.”

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