France steps up Covid monitoring as Delta variant spreads

Around 10 percent of all recorded Covid-19 cases in France are the Delta variant - a big jump in just a week that has the government to issue a warning for people to maintain health measures even as restrictions are being lifted

France steps up Covid monitoring as Delta variant spreads
The French government hopes an enhanced testing and vaccine campaign will ensure the summer holiday period goes without a health hitch. Photo: Clement Mahoudeau | AFP

The highly contagious variant of the virus, originally identified in India, is responsible for 70 percent of new cases in the Landes départment in south west France, government spokesman Gabriel Attal confirmed after the weekly Cabinet meeting, and between 9 and 10 percent of cases on a national level.

Just one week ago, the variant accounted for 2-4 percent of cases in France.

The same variant is behind the surge in cases in the UK, where it is now the dominant variant of the virus.

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“We see what is happening in the United Kingdom, where there has been a continuous increase in cases for several weeks,” Attal said.

“We can see that things can go very quickly, so you have to be very vigilant. This is why we have set up in France a progressive calendar for lifting restrictions, which we are going through step by step.”

As well as repeatedly calling for “individual and collective vigilance”, he also insisted that France has “a weapon that we did not have a year ago: vaccination”.

ALSO READ: Face masks to cafés: What Covid-19 rules are still in place in France?

“The more French people are vaccinated, the more we will be able to protect ourselves against the epidemic, including any variants.”

His comments came as the director of the European Centres for Disease Control (ECDC) warned that one dose of the vaccine is not enough to protect against the Delta variant, and that the virus was expected to circulate widely among unvaccinated people during the summer.

Landes is currently the only départment in France where the number of cases per 100,000 people is over 50, triggering an official alert. The nationwide average for cases is 24 per 100,000.

The below chart from Le Parisien’s health reporter Nicolas Berrod shows the incidence rate in France compared to Landes.

Prime Minister Jean Castex and Health Minister Olivier Véran will travel to the southwestern department on Thursday to launch France’s expansive summer Covid-19 tracing system intended to ensure the holiday period is as safe as possible.

France will also implement a mass localised vaccination strategy — already used in Brittany and Bordeaux — in areas where clusters of the Delta variant are identified, following advice from the Haute autorité de santé.

As well as Landes, the Bas-Rhin département – home of Strasbourg – is under close scrutiny, as clusters are monitored across the country. The Delta variant also accounts for 12 to 13 percent of new cases in the greater Paris Ile-de-France region.

Health authorities are calling for people in France to be fully vaccinated to avoid a new wave of the virus in September, when schools reopen. 

At a press conference on Tuesday, Véran said: “We have the doses, we have the organisation, we cannot lose this opportunity.”

OPINION: France is much less vaccine-shy than previously feared, but can it reach 90 percent coverage?

Nearly 32.5 million  people in France have now received a first dose, according to government figures from June 22nd, and 19.2 million people are fully vaccinated.  

About four million people are being vaccinated each week, Véran said, despite a recent fall-off in the number of people making appointments.

Meanwhile, the director of the ECDC has warned that the Delta variant can affect people who have had one dose of vaccine.

In a statement, Dr Andrea Ammon said: “Variants of SARS-CoV-2 are emerging at a significant rate worldwide. ECDC is constantly analysing the characteristics of these variants to rapidly inform public health authorities in the European Union. Some variants can put our efforts to control the pandemic at risk and require immediate actions.

“Based on available scientific evidence, the Delta variant is more transmissible than other circulating variants and we estimate that by the end of August it will represent 90 percent of all SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in the European Union.

“Preliminary data shows that it can also infect individuals that have received only one dose of the currently available vaccines.

“It is very likely that the Delta variant will circulate extensively during the summer, particularly among younger individuals that are not targeted for vaccination. This could cause a risk for the more vulnerable individuals to be infected and experience severe illness and death if they are not fully vaccinated.

“The good news is that having received two doses of any of the currently available vaccines provides high protection against this variant and its consequences. However, about 30 percent of individuals older than 80 years and about 40 percent of individuals older than 60 years have not yet received a full vaccination course in the European Union.

“There are still too many individuals at risk of severe Covid-19 infection whom we need to protect as soon as possible.

“Until most of the vulnerable individuals are protected, we need to keep the circulation of the Delta virus low by strictly adhering to public health measures, which worked for controlling the impact of other variants.

“It is very important to progress with the vaccine roll-out at a very high pace. At this stage it becomes crucial that the second vaccination dose is administered within the minimum authorised interval from the first dose, to speed up the rate at which vulnerable individuals become protected.

“I am aware that it requires a significant effort from public health authorities and the society at large to achieve this goal. But now is the time to walk the extra mile. We have several safe and effective vaccines available and every single infection prevented now through our compliance with public health measures, is a life that can be saved by vaccination.”

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Reader Question: Can I get a third Covid booster shot in France?

As France launches its autumn vaccine campaign, almost half of those eligible for the second booster jab in France have already received it. This has left some wondering whether they could qualify for a third booster, using the new dual-strain vaccines.

Reader Question: Can I get a third Covid booster shot in France?

Question: I’m in my 70s and I had my second booster back in the summer but now I see that the new dual-strain vaccines are available – should I be getting an extra booster with the new type of vaccine?

French health authorities launched the autumn booster campaign on October 3rd includes newly authorised dual-strain vaccines – such as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine adapted to BA.1, the Moderna vaccine adapted to BA.1, and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine adapted to BA.4/5 – which are designed to combat the Omicron variant.

It will be followed by the seasonal flu vaccination campaign in mid October.

READ MORE: When, where and how to get flu shots and Covid boosters this autumn in France

In France, about 6.3 million people have received a second booster dose, “or 41 percent of the eligible population,” said the Directorate General of Health (DGS) to Ouest France.

Currently only those in high risk groups are eligible for a second booster shot, including pregnant women, the elderly those with medical conditions or carers – find the full list here.

As almost half of the eligible population have already received a fourth vaccine, many are wondering whether they will be eligible for a fifth (or third booster) in order to access the new dual-strain vaccine.  

According to Virginie, a representative from HAS – France’s health authority – the organisation “no longer thinks in terms of doses for high-risk people and immunocompromised patients.”

Specifically, the HAS recommends that a new injection be given – and if possible one of the dual-strain vaccines – “regardless of the number of injections received up to now”.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Who qualifies for a second Covid vaccine booster in France?

However, French health authorities specified that the additional booster should “respect the minimum recommended time between two doses.”

“This depends based on your profile – for people aged 80 and over, residents of nursing homes or long-term care units (USLD) and those who are immunocompromised, the wait-time is three months between jabs. For the others, the delay is set at six months.”

For those who have already been infected by Covid-19, the HAS recommends that if you are eligible for a second (or third booster) that the additional dose “is still recommended, with a minimum delay of three months after infection.”