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It’s only 07:30 in the morning and the sun has barely started to rise, but outside the Biogroup laboratory in eastern Paris the queue is already 100 meters long. Some 60 people are standing in the chilly September air, patiently waiting for a Covid-19 test. The first in line have been here since around 05:30. This is one of the few labs in the area that offer screenings without an appointment, making it particularly busy: “It’s usually hard to get an appointment unless you’re sick, but here you can come with or without symptoms, with or without a prescription,” says Marine, 37, who needs to be cleared before travelling abroad.
Further down the line, Grégoire, 44, has brought in his two young girls after they developed a sore throat and a cough. “They can’t go back to school unless they test negative; these are the rules, I’m not questioning them,” he says, glancing at the dozens of people ahead. The problem, he adds, is that “labs are overwhelmed; there’s one by my place, but they have no available slots for a week, and then you have to wait another one before getting the results.”
France’s testing woes come as the country, after bringing the Covid-19 epidemic largely under control at the end of the spring, is experiencing a second surge. Experts struggle to understand exactly why: Pierrick Tranouez, a member of CoVprehension, a collective of researchers sharing information about the coronavirus with the public, speculates that the country’s popularity as a summer tourist destination “could have been a contributing factor, although definitely not the only one.” Whatever the reason, official data show an average of almost 12,000 new infections per day over the past week, twice as high as the UK’s new cases over the same period. The figures, by far the highest ever recorded in the country, partly reflect increased testing, with fewer cases going undetected. But Covid-19 is unquestionably spreading again – and fast. The share of tests that turn out positive is four times that tallied in the UK, and rising sharply.
“We find more cases because we are testing more, but the disease is progressing faster than the detection efforts,” Tranouez says. Hospital admissions and deaths are at much lower levels than at their peak six months ago, but they are also growing fast – by around 40 per cent every week, according to the latest figures. Tranouez points out that while in August the virus was circulating mainly among twenty-year-olds, who rarely show symptoms or suffer from complications, now it is spreading to more vulnerable age groups.
On Wednesday, health minister Olivier Véran warned that in some regions intensive care units risked being overwhelmed in a matter of weeks, and toughened up restrictions: similar to what is happening in the UK, bars will have to close no later than 10pm in various urban areas, including Paris. In the southern city of Marseille, bars and restaurants will shut down completely.
Making this bleak scenario worse, the country’s testing system is reeling. Over the summer, in a bid to prevent the epidemic from picking up steam again, France made tests free of charge and available to everybody without prescription. For months, the government has been presenting the increase in the number of tests as one of its top priorities, insisting that easy access to screening is necessary to detect a higher share of asymptomatic cases and stave off the spread of the virus.
But critics say this strategy failed to foresee the massive demand that hit labs at the end of the holiday season, with scores of people seeking testing for peace of mind before going back to work. This, paired with the intensification of Covid-19’s circulation, has led to a logjam. In Paris and other densely populated areas, getting tested fast has become quite a challenge – especially if you’re not willing or able to line up for hours in the early morning.
“We went from 500,000 tests per week at the beginning of August to one million at the end of the month,” says Kim Nguyen, a biologist and union representative who works in a laboratory just outside Paris. The upshot? The samples collected are too many for analyses to keep up. “It often takes five to ten days to deliver the results. At that point they are useless, because from an epidemiological perspective that’s too long: people can’t be traced and isolated, and contact cases rise.”
For those directly involved in these efforts, working conditions have deteriorated. “In contrast with what the government says, labs are short on reagents and other material, and our personnel is exhausted,” says Nguyen. Some overburdened laboratory employees have already gone on strike to demand a salary raise: in the south-west of France, a chain of 20 labs had to shut down for several days before a deal with management was finally clinched this week.
Over the past few weeks, France’s health ministry has recognised that its “large-scale screening” strategy has put the system under severe strain. One of the main problems is the absence of a clear fast track for people with symptoms, or who are particularly at risk. A few days ago, with a change in tone compared to the past months, minister Véran urged the public not to get tested unless really necessary, implying – albeit more subtly than his British counterpart Matt Hancock – that some do it “too often.” The government also says it is working to make life easier for “priority cases”, for example by putting in place new screening centres exclusively for them. The ministry did not answer emailed questions by the time of publication.
But many workers on the frontlines feel that the government opened up a Pandora’s box only to leave them to deal with the consequences. “In late August, the national health authorities asked laboratories to prioritise based on whether or not people are feeling sick or have interacted with a Covid case,” says Nguyen. “The problem is that, in practice, this is very hard to do in a queue outside a lab: those who have no symptoms immediately start pretending they do.” That’s why his union is demanding that the government introduce more rigid rules, restricting the tests to people with a prescription.
France’s test backlog is already jeopardising its ability to effectively track and contain the virus. According to the Our World in Data database, the number of tests actually started dropping in recent days, while the National Health Agency warns that the spread of the epidemic “is certainly being underestimated” due to capacity issues experienced in several regions.
The bottom line is that France has so many more cases than almost anywhere else in Europe, including the UK. That grim ranking may well change in the days and weeks to come. Infection numbers in the UK remain lower, but the data suggests they are accelerating at a faster pace. When the epidemic first broke out earlier this year, the UK’s coronavirus curve lagged behind France’s. Just like it did back then, it might eventually catch up.
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