The pace of France’s Covid-19 vaccination programme is too slow to prevent new lockdown measures being needed to halt a third wave of hospitalisations, top scientists say.
Experts at the prestigious Institut Pasteur say the current pace of around 100,000 jabs a day is ‘insufficient’ to rein in the effects of the highly contagious UK variant.
But the third wave of hospital cases could be reduced by up to a third if France can catch up to the UK and start vaccinating more than 400,000 people per day.
France has stocks of the Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines and is aiming to ‘rehabilitate’ the Oxford jab after Emmanuel Macron wrongly claimed it was ‘quasi-ineffective’ in older people.
Macron was challenged by EU leaders over his comments, it emerged today – after Ursula von der Leyen sought to boost support for the jab by saying that she herself would be willing to take it.
Meanwhile a German vaccine chief said that more than one million AstraZeneca doses were lying in storage amid public reluctance to take the jab, despite real-world studies showing it is effective.
France’s vaccine roll-out is not only well behind Britain’s but also slower than the EU average and other underperforming countries such as Germany
A woman gets the vaccine at a cultural centre turned into a vaccination headquarters in Paris – with scientists warning that new measures may be needed if too few jabs are given out
According to the Daily Telegraph, an EU official said leaders had questioned Macron about whether his claims on the AstraZeneca jab were ‘true or not’.
France is among the countries to have limited the vaccine to under-65s because of the small sample size of older people in clinical trial data.
But real-world data from Scotland has shown the AstraZeneca shot cutting hospital cases by 94 per cent among the mainly elderly people who have had it so far.
The French health ministry has admitted that the jab has an ‘image deficit’ with only around 107,000 doses of it administered so far.
But progress has also been slow with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, with only 3.8million jabs handed out so far in France compared to 18.6million in Britain.
That gap is growing every day, with Britain currently at around 350,000 jabs per day and France well behind on 118,000, according to Our World In Data.
Experts at the Institut Pasteur say that only 10 per cent of the French population is expected to have been vaccinated by mid-March, making ‘little impact on the dynamics of infection’.
They warn that the feared British variant will likely make up 56 per cent of France’s virus cases by March 1, rising to 91 per cent by the start of April.
The UK strain is believed to be more contagious, meaning that the transmission rate is expected to be 55 per cent higher by April than it would have been before.
French virus infections are on the rise again, with more than 31,000 new cases added to the tally on Wednesday – the biggest one-day jump since November
Daily deaths are down to just over 300 per day, but experts warn that the British variant could cause a new peak in hospitalisations and deaths
Although vaccinations will have some impact, the scientists say that daily hospital admissions could return to levels of 4,500 per day not seen since the first wave.
‘We expect that the vaccination may help delay the rise in hospital admissions by about two weeks,’ the Pasteur scientists said.
‘However, its impact may not be sufficient to balance the effect of the increased transmissibility of [the British variant].
‘Indeed, the number of hospital admissions might reach in the second half of April 2021 levels observed at the peak of the French second wave and more than 4,500 daily hospital admissions at the peak which would likely overwhelm the healthcare system.’
The experts said that if France could speed up to a rate of more than 400,000 jabs per day and reach 90 per cent vaccine coverage in over-75s, the number of hospital cases at the peak could be reduced by up to 33 per cent.
But they warned that ‘additional control measures’ may be needed in the meantime, with French ministers already signalling that extra curbs are looming.
Strengthening restrictions with ‘strong intensity’ for six weeks could ‘reduce the growth in hospital admissions further than in other scenarios,’ the scientists said.
France has been under a nationwide curfew since December 15, but Macron has so far held out against ordering a third national lockdown.
But after a period of stagnation, cases are now on the rise again – with 31,519 new infections reported on Wednesday, the most since mid-November.
French president Emmanuel Macron, pictured, was questioned by EU leaders after wrongly raising doubts about the AstraZeneca vaccine
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the national situation was deteriorating, speaking of a ‘source of worry in about 10 regional departments’.
Some of those regions would need ‘rapid and strong’ containment measures, Attal said.
On Monday, the Alpes-Maritimes department – a Mediterranean coastal region around Nice – announced a partial lockdown over the next two weekends.
Hospital cases in Alpes-Maritimes are at an all time high with more than 700 people currently being treated, of whom more than 100 are in intensive care.
On Wednesday, French health minister Olivier Veran announced similar measures for Dunkirk where the infection rate has reached 900 per 100,000.
Like on the Riviera, the 250,000 people who live in Dunkirk and surrounding areas will be allowed to leave their homes only for specific reasons.
Attal, the government spokesman, said that ‘we must continue all our efforts to avoid having to impose another national lockdown’.
But there was ‘obviously’ no certainty that such a drastic measure could be avoided, he said, warning that the government would order a new confinement if necessary.
French prime minister Jean Castex will host a news conference to update the country on the Covid situation on Thursday, Attal said.