French health officials say a potentially more contagious strain of the virus causing Covid-19 has caused a handful of cases in the country, including the Paris region. The variant, identified in Britain last month, has been linked to a surge in cases that has forced the UK government to impose the most restrictive lockdown since early last summer.
As France scrambles to catch up with its neighbours in vaccinating against Covid-19, top officials said they were closely watching for signs of the potentially highly contagious new variant, which has been identified in a small number of cases.
“At this stage, we have about 10 suspected or confirmed cases” of the variant, which “is not spreading widely in France” for the moment, Health Minister Olivier Véran told RTL radio.
“We are watching this very closely,” he continued, noting that anyone entering France from Britain had to take a Covid test. “Anyone doubtful will be placed in quarantine.”
France shut its borders with Britain for 48 hours in late December after UK officials identified the new variant. Paris now requires all travellers from the UK to present a recent negative Covid test result.
Newspaper Le Parisien reported France’s first case of the variant was identified on Christmas Day in the east-central city of Tours, involving a Frenchman who had arrived from London several days earlier.
A second case was detected on the island of Corsica, also concerning a person returning from London.
Variant detected in Paris
On Tuesday, the director of the Paris hospital system said the new variant is suspected to be spreading around the capital, the country’s most densely populated area.
“The Covid variant is spreading in Paris and in the Paris region,” Martin Hirsch told France 2 television.
“It’s in Paris,” Hirsch said. “It was found in a Paris laboratory test of a patient who lives in the Paris region.”
Toughest lockdown since spring in UK
Health Minister Véran also said overall infection and hospital rates were currently at a plateau, but that the number of cases was too high to consider easing current Covid-19 restrictions.
An abrupt upsurge in infections across the Channel has been linked to the new variant’s widespread disbribution.
England and Scotland on Monday both announced new extensive lockdowns due to a spike in Covid infections attributed to the new variant, which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said was spreading so fast it risked overwhelming the National Health Service.
The lockdown, to begin Wednesday, is to be be almost as strict as the first confinement last spring, with all schools closed except those for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
Scotland also announced a strict confinement, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon saying the variant was responsible for nearly 50 percent of new cases.
“Being back in lockdown is really hard to take for everyone, but it is necessary to slow down this new strain of the virus while we get people vaccinated,” Sturgeon wrote on social media.
Similar measures were announced for Northern Ireland and Wales, which imposed a stricter confinement just before Christmas.
A vaccine-resistant Covid variant?
Prime Minister Johnson said the lockdown would last at least six weeks, but Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove warned on Sky News that restrictions would likely remain in place until mid-March as vaccines take effect.
Britain has begun rolling out two vaccines against Covid, one made by US-German partnership Pfizer-BioNTech, and the other by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.
More than a million people have received the first dose of the two-dose vaccines, and the government’s goal is to inocculate all care-home residents and their carers, everyone over 70, all frontline health and social care workers and anyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable by mid-February.
But Health Secretary Matt Hancock added a degree of worry, saying a variant circulating in South Africa represented even more of a risk than that first identified in Britain because some experts believe it is resistant to the vaccines that have been developed.
“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant,” Hancock told the BBC. “This is a very, very significant problem … even more of a problem than the UK new variant.”