Does France really have its own strain of coronavirus?

Reports of a 'new' strain of coronavirus in France, that did not come China or Italy, have sparked a wave of theories, but what does this really mean?

Does France really have its own strain of coronavirus?
Photo: AFP

A study into coronavirus cases in France from the Pasteur Institute in Paris has found evidence of a previously unreported strain of the virus in France, that cannot be linked to travel to either Italy or China.

The study has already provided a boost to the online conspiracy theorists who claim that the virus was deliberately created by the Pasteur Institute as part of an evil plot by the Macron government/pharmaceutical companies/international conspiracy of giant killer hedgehogs (delete as appropriate).

But does the study really conclude that France has its own strain of the virus? Not quite.

What is the study?

The researchers at the National reference centre for respiratory viruses based at the Pasteur Institute began sequencing the genome of strains of the virus in January, when the first cases on French soil were confirmed.

The analysed a large number of patient samples collected in France between January 24th and March 24th and looked at different strains of the virus, their relationship to each other and the genetic diversity of the different strains circulating in France.

They also compared this to international data by working with scientists in Europe, Asia and America.

What did they find?

They found that coronavirus cases had been circulating in France since January, well before cases started being reported in large number in March.

France has essentially had two waves of officially confirmed cases – 12 cases were confirmed in France in late January and early February, all linked to travel from China.

Then within days of the major outbreak in Italy in late February, large numbers of cases began to be reported in France, with most of the early cases linked to people who had either travelled from Italy or been in close contact with those who had.

But what the Pasteur Institute found has disproved this travel-based narrative. 

How were their results different?

They found two things; firstly that the virus was already circulating at a low level in France by mid January, and the people who had this virus had not travelled from China. The people who had this virus strain tended to have mild or no symptoms.

This is backed up by separate research by Dr Yves Cohen, a Paris-based doctor who retested samples that the Avicenne and Jean Verdier hospitals had taken from pneumonia patients, who found a case from December 27th.

This man had not travelled to China either.

The second thing the Pasteur Institute found was that the great majority of the samples from France were of the same strain of the virus with little genetic diversity – but not the same strain as that found in the earliest patients who had travelled from China or Italy.

“Our analyses show that the variants of this virus no longer circulate predominantly in the French population [due to the end of the chains of transmission].
“This leads us to conclude that the isolation that was imposed on these infected people was effective because these variants did not succeed in establishing themselves in France after the first symptomatic cases occurred in the Ile-de-France region, Brittany and the Far East,” lead researcher Étienne Simon-Lorière told Le Monde.
The virus is also slightly different to the dominant strains circulating in the UK and the Netherlands.
So does that mean there is a separate strain in France?
Not necessarily. 
This study does not determine a 'patient zero' and indeed says it's likely that the virus was introduced several times onto French soil.
Other than determining that patients have not travelled to China or Italy there is so far no more information on where they could have caught it from.
And researchers so far do not have reliable data on the viral strains circulating in other countries at the same time period.
That means the scientists cannot say for sure that it came from China or Italy, which is not the same as saying that it definitely didn't.


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Carte vitale: France to adopt a new ‘biometric’ health card

The French parliament has approved a €20 million project to launch a 'biometric' version of the carte vitale health insurance card.

Carte vitale: France to adopt a new 'biometric' health card

As part of the French government’s package of financial aid for the cost-of-living crisis, €20 million will be set set aside to launch a biometric health card, after an amendment proposed by senators was approved.

Right-wing senators made this measure a “condition” of their support for the financial aid package, according to French left-wing daily Libération, and on Thursday the measure was approved by the Assemblée nationale.

While it sounds quite high tech, the idea is relatively simple, according to centre-right MP Thibault Bazin: the carte vitale would be equipped with a chip that “contains physical characteristics of the insured, such as their fingerprints” which would allow healthcare providers to identify them.

The carte vitale is the card that allows anyone registered in the French health system to be reimbursed for medical costs such as doctor’s appointments, medical procedures and prescriptions. The card is linked to the patient’s bank account so that costs are reimbursed directly into the bank account, usually within a couple of days.

READ ALSO How a carte vitale works and how to get one

According to the centre-right Les Républicains group, the reason for having a ‘biometric’ carte vitale is to fight against welfare fraud.

They say this would have two functions; firstly the biometric data would ensure the card could only be used by the holder, and secondly the chip would allow for instant deactivation if the card was lost of stolen.

Support for the biometric carte vitale has mostly been concentrated with right-wing representatives, however, opponants say that the implementation of the tool would be costly and lengthy.

It would involve replacing at least 65 million cards across France and repurposing them with biometric chips, in addition to taking fingerprints for all people concerned.

Additionally, all healthcare professionals would have to join the new system and be equipped with devices capable of reading fingerprints. 

Left-leaning representatives have also voiced concerns regarding the protection of personal data and whether plans would comply with European regulations for protecting personal data, as the creation of ‘biometric’ carte vitales would inevitably lead to the creation of a centralised biometric database. Additionally, there are concerns regarding whether this sensitive personal information could be exposed to cybercrime, as the health insurance system in France has been targeted by hackers in the past.

Finally, there is concern that the amount of financial loss represented by carte vitale fraud has been overestimated. The true figures are difficult to establish, but fraud related to carte vitale use is only a small part of general welfare fraud, which also covers unemployment benefits and other government subsidy schemes.

The scheme is set to begin in the autumn, but there us no information on how this will be done, and whether the biometric chip will just be added to new cards, or whether existing cards will be replaced with new ones.