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COVID-19

EXPLAINED: Why Covid cases are rising again in France

France on Monday removed many of its remaining Covid rules, but even before that date case numbers were rising. So why is this happening? And is it something that we need to be worried about?

EXPLAINED: Why Covid cases are rising again in France
Photo: Pascal Guyot / AFP

“Infections will rise again for 10 to 15 days,” Health Minister Olivier Véran told Franceinfo on Wednesday, two days after the country had done away with the vaccine pass and lifted mask rules in most areas.

“What the modelling of the Institut Pasteur tells us is that it will indeed go up until the end of March, we risk reaching 120,000 to 150,000 infections per day, and then we can expect a decrease,” he went on.

But he insisted the government had made the “right decision” in choosing to end most restrictions earlier than anticipated and in spite of an apparent epidemic rebound, saying “there is no risk of saturation of hospitals“.

So what’s happening?

Cases

Daily Covid numbers in France reached record highs in January, when an average of more than 366,000 new cases a day were recorded.

Current figures are well below that, but still high. On Tuesday, France reported more than 116,000 new cases in the previous 24 hours – a marked rise on the figure of 93,050 recorded the same day a week previously, and breaking the 100,000 barrier for the first time since mid-February.

The daily average figure – which irons out statistical quirks such as delayed reporting at weekends – is 65,143, a 25 percent increase on the previous week.

Map: Covidtracker.fr

“More than 50 percent” of new cases are due to the sub-variant of Omicron, BA.2, which is “more transmissible” but less severe, the Conseil scientifique said. 

Hospitalisations

The number of people being hospitalised with the virus has started ticking up again, after falling from a peak of 2,900 per day in early February. On March 13th, there were 973 new patients in hospital.

“High vaccination rates have made it possible to limit the hospital impact of these infections,” the Conseil said.

But about 4 million adult people remain unvaccinated and almost 5 million have not had a booster dose.

“The number of hospitalisations will increase temporarily in the coming weeks,” it added.

Admissions to intensive care and death rates both continue to decline, but usually any effect on these figures is not felt until at least two weeks after case numbers begin to rise.

European trend

France is not the only country that is seeing an uptick in cases, Germany, Austria, the UK, Belgium and Italy have all reported rises in recent days.

School holidays

Since the relaxation of the French rules only happened on Monday, it is clearly not the source of the increase.

Rather, regional variations in the spread of the virus indicates that schools reopening after the winter holidays has been a key driver of the latest rise in infections.

Schools in France are divided into three zones and take their February holiday at different times.

Guillaume Rozier, founder of the CovidTracker website, told AFP at the weekend. “The rise in cases is most apparent in northern France and along the Mediterranean coast, roughly corresponding to the areas where children returned to school earliest (on February 21st).”

Upticks in Covid figures have been spotted, too, in zones A and C, which returned to class later.

Spring

“The current cold climate remains an element that favours viral transmission. This should improve in the coming weeks with the arrival of the good weather,” says the Conseil scientifique.

As the weather improves and temperatures rise, socialising and activities tend to move outdoors, where the transmission risk is lower. This follows the pattern also seen in 2020 and 2021 when the virus receded in the summer, before returning in autumn.

Not a wave

“This rebound is not a wave,” says Véran. However he added: “The end of the obligation does not mean the end of vigilance. I invite French women and men to wear the mask in all circumstances which may expose them or those around them to the risk of infection.”

Institut Pasteur forecasts published on March 10th suggest that “in all the scenarios explored, the peak of cases [in March] remains much lower than the peak in January”. 

Experts are also confident that the combination of vaccinations and immunity because of previous infection will keep serious cases to a minimum.

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COVID-19

Reader Question: When will the new dual-strain Covid vaccines be available in France?

The next generation of Covid vaccines have been designed to combat both the original strain of the virus that kicked off the pandemic in 2020, and later Omicron variants that are currently dominant around much of the world.

Reader Question: When will the new dual-strain Covid vaccines be available in France?

Reader question: I see the UK and the US have approved a new ‘dual-strain’ Covid vaccine – when will these be available in France?

Currently, the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron sub-variants account for more than 95 percent of the confirmed cases in France, although experts are – as ever – cautious about the possibility of new variants emerging in the months to come.

Two so-called “bivalent” vaccines – one made by Pfizer and the other Moderna – that target both the original and omicron variants have been developed.

The UK has approved the dual-strain Moderna vaccine, and ministers have said that it will form part of the country’s autumn booster campaign, while the US has approved Pfizer’s dual-strain vaccine.

France is part of the EU’s vaccine procurement programme and so far in the pandemic has waited for new vaccines to be approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) before using them in France.

The EMA has approved three new dual strain vaccines – on September 8th it approved two Omicron adapted Covid-19 booster vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna, both of which target the BA.1 strain of the virus and on September 13th it approved Pfizer’s BA.4/BA.5 strain vaccine.

France’s national authority for health, the HAS (Haute autorité de santé) published a press release on September 20th saying that they have authorised “Pfizer and Moderna vaccines adapted to Omicron BA.1 and BA.5.”

Specifically, this concerns 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.

The Moderna vaccine adapted to BA.4/5 “could be authorized by the end of September.”

The statement said authorised vaccines can be used “indiscriminately” for at-risk people once the vaccines become available in France “within the coming weeks.” 

Prior to authorising these vaccines, the HAS had announced in early September that the dual-strain vaccines already authorised by the EMA will be available in France “in October” and “will certainly have a place in the vaccination strategy”.

It is planned to combine an autumn vaccine booster programme with the seasonal flu vaccine campaign, which begins October 18th. Full details on that here – Explained: France’s plan for autumn flu and Covid vaccine campaigns

Still under review by EMA is the “bivalent recombinant protein vaccine” which was developed by Spanish lab Hipra and reportedly confers protection against the BA.2, BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of Omicron. It is intended as a booster dose for people aged 16 or over.

The European Commission announced in early August that it had signed a contract to acquire up to 250 million doses of this vaccine, once it is approved.

The autumn booster shot campaign has not yet begun and currently a second booster – a fourth dose for most people – of the Covid-19 vaccine is only available for certain groups of people.

In order to qualify, you must have received your first booster shot more than six months ago and be either:

  • Aged 60 or over
  • Aged 18-59 with a serious medical condition such as cancer patients, dialysis patients or transplant patients that puts you at high risk of developing the most serious forms of the virus
  • Aged 18-59 with a condition that puts you at higher risk of developing more serious forms of the virus. 
  • A pregnant woman
  • Either living with or in regular close contact with a person at high risk from the virus 

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

So far in France, 32.5 percent of eligible 60-79 year olds have received a second booster dose, and 45.2 percent of those aged 80 and over, while 75.3 percent of those over 18 have received three doses of the vaccine. 

In August experts from the World Health Organisation recommended that those most at risk of the Covid-19 virus be offered a second booster dose.

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