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HEALTH

What is France doing to control the spread of new Covid variants?

New, more infectious variants of Covid first discovered in the UK, South Africa and Brazil are spreading steadily in France, prompting fears of an explosion of cases and a third lockdown. Here's what France is doing to halt the spread.

What is France doing to control the spread of new Covid variants?
All PCR tests in France will be screened for variants. Photo: AFP

The emergence just before Christmas of new, more infectious strains of the Covid virus in the UK, South Africa and Brazil has been the cause of much worry in France, with the spread of the new strains one of the major reasons given by people pushing for a third lockdown.

Overall case numbers remain broadly stable in France at around 20,000 new cases a day, with a slight fall observed over the past week. 

In his briefing on Thursday evening, health minister Olivier Véran said that variants now account for 25 percent of cases in France.

Health minister Olivier Véran on Friday travelled to Moselle after a worrying rise in variant cases. Photo: AFP

The percentage of variants detected has seen a steady rise since January and scientific modelling predicts that the new variants will be the dominant strain of the virus in France by March.

All three seem to be more contagious than the classic Covid virus, and there seems to be some evidence that the AstraZeneca vaccine is less effective against the South African strain.

At present most of the variants are the UK variant, but the South African and Brazilian variants are also seeing a steady growth, representing between 4 and 5 percent of all cases.

In Dordogne 40 cases have been detected, which health bosses say are linked to a cluster.

The département of Moselle in eastern France presents a “very worrying” situation, said Véran, with 300 cases of the Brazilian and South African variants detected. These cannot at present be linked to a single cluster, or to people who have travelled or their contact cases.

Véran travelled to the département on Friday for emergency discussions with local leaders.

While all options remain on the table, including local lockdowns in affected areas, the French government at the beginning of February decided against a third national lockdown for now, but has brought in a collection of new measures aimed at curbing the spread of the variants.

Travel bans

In January France announced the closure of its borders to all non-EU travel, apart from in a limited range of exceptions.

To travel to or from France from a non EU country travellers need a vital reason including essential work or the death of a close family member. Travel from non EU countries, including the UK, is not allowed for tourism, family visits or visits from second home owners.

Anyone who does have an essential reason for travel – which includes an exemption for hauliers coming from the UK – needs a negative Covid test to enter France.

Travel from within the EU is allowed for any reason, but people still need a negative Covid test, with some exemptions including cross-border workers.

READ ALSO Who can travel since France closed its non-EU borders?

New testing

In order to track the progress of the variants, France had conducted several 'flash' surveys of positive test results to screen for variants, but now is screening all tests for the presence of variants.

All PCR tests in France will now be analysed in labs by a new test multiplex – which is capable of detecting the presence of the existing strain of Covid or one of the new variants with a single test, thus saving valuable time in tracking the new variants. These are now being used in labs in France and will shortly completely replace the older style of test, said Véran.

This screening applies only to PCR tests, and not the rapid-result antigen tests which are available in pharmacies.

Quarantine

Those infected by the South African or Brazilian variants must self-isolate for 10 days instead of seven. After that they may only exit quarantine upon taking a test that comes back negative. If the test comes back positive they must self-isolate for another seven days.

Those who test positive for the variant first discovered in the UK are not subject to stricter self-isolation rules and may continue to follow the general rules.

School rules reinforced

The government has also banned the use of fabric masks in schools, asking that all pupils wear surgical masks of the more protective type 'category 1'.

A class will also immediately close if a pupil is discovered to be infected by the variants first discovered in South Africa or the Brazil. If one pupil is a contact case for a parent or sibling diagnosed with the variants, the class will also close. Classes will only close if there are three or more cases of the classic Covid virus or the UK variant, as per the previous rules.

Contact cases

Anyone who is identified as a contact case of either the South African or Brazilian variants are urged to get immediately tested, with health authorities asked to offer them a test the same day, according to the new rules.

Home visits

Anyone identified as having the South African or Brazilian variants will be offered the possibility of having a domestic nurse come check up on them.

Masks

Schools have banned fabric masks, which are ruled to be less effective against the new variants. For the rest of the population fabric masks are still allowed, but the government advises the use of surgical masks as the most effective. 

EXPLAINED Which type of mask is recommended for everyday use in France?

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HEALTH

Where in France are there concerns about pesticides in drinking water

An investigation has revealed that tap water supplied to some 12 million people in France was sometimes contaminated with high levels of pesticides last year.

Where in France are there concerns about pesticides in drinking water

Data from regional health agencies, and collated by Le Monde, found that supplies to about 20 percent of the population, up from 5.9 percent the year previously, failed to consistently meet regional quality standards. 

The study highlighted regional differences in tap water quality. Hauts-de-France water was the most likely to be affected, with 65 percent of the population there drinking water contaminated by unacceptable pesticide levels. In Brittany, that level fell to 43 percent; 25.5 percent in the Grand-Est, and 25 percent in the Pays de la Loire.

Occitanie, in southwest France, meanwhile, showed the lowest level of non-compliance with standards, with just 5.1 percent of the region’s population affected by high pesticide levels in their tap water. However, figures show that 71 percent of people in one département in the region, Gers, were supplied with water containing high levels of pesticides.

Regional discrepancies in testing, including what chemicals are tested for, mean that results and standards are not uniform across France. Tap water in Haute-Corse is tested for 24 pesticide molecules; in Hauts-de-Seine, that figure rises to 477. 

One reason for regional testing standards are differences in local agricultural requirements.

Part of the increase in the year-on-year number of households supplied with affected water may also be explained by the fact that tests in many regions now seek to trace more molecules, Le Monde noted.

Water quality standards in France are strict – with a limit for pesticide residues set at 0.1 microgramme per litre, so the “high” levels found in tap water supplies may not represent a danger to health.

The question of the level of health risk to humans, therefore, remains unclear. The Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail (Anses) has not defined a maximum safety level for 23 pesticides or their metabolites. Le Monde cites two metabolites of chloridazone, a herbicide used until 2020 on beet fields, for which only provisional safety levels in tap water have been set. 

Many of these molecules and their long-term effects remain unknown – and “the long-term health effects of exposure to low doses of pesticides are difficult to assess,” admits the Ministry of Health.

Michel Laforcade, former director general of the ARS Nouvelle-Aquitaine told Le Monde that health authorities have “failed” on this subject. 

“One day, we will have to give an account,” he said. “It may not be on the same scale as the contaminated blood affair, but it could become the next public health scandal.”

In December 2020, the Direction générale de la santé (DGS) recommended “restricting uses of water” as soon as the 0.1 micrograms per litre quality threshold is exceeded, in cases of residues for which there is no formal maximum health value.

But this principle is not always applied, according to France 2’s Complètement d’enquête programme.

In December 2021, the DGS asked the Haut conseil de la santé publique (HCSP) “for support on the management of health risks associated with the presence of pesticides and pesticide metabolites in water intended for human consumption.”

The HCSP, in response, said that “an active and urgent policy must be implemented to reduce the contamination of resources by pesticides”.

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