As everywhere else, the program to vaccinate the French population has primarily been a function of the availability of the vaccines. European countries, including France, opted to coordinate and channel their vaccine procurement efforts through a single European agency, and, for reasons we will not explore here, it fell far behind the USA and UK in assuring its supply.
As a result, the French and European vaccination program only really began in earnest 2-3 weeks ago, and at this stage less than 6 of the 67 million French population has been vaccinated against COVID 19. Those vaccinated are mostly health care workers and the elderly, including your’s truly. I had my first Pfizer vaccination two weeks ago and am due to have a second on April 3rd.
Meanwhile, since October, COVID 19 variants from the UK, South Africa, Brazil and California have emerged that are more transmissible and deadly than the virus seen throughout most of 2020. By the start of last January the UK variant constituted about 3% of an average of about 9,000 daily infections in France. This week it had become 75% of an average of 35,000 new daily infections.
This situation was aggravated last week by a rush by several European countries to suspend their use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, on the preposterous pretext that 37 cases of blood clots had been observed throughout Europe, among 17 million people vaccinated with the AZ vaccine. That ludicrous decision has now been reversed, after the European Medicines Agency confirmed that the AZ vaccine is safe and beneficial.
To stop the progression, the Prime Minister of France, Jean Castex, yesterday announced the imposition of a new set of restrictions on 16 of the most afflicted regions of France. The most important are the closure of all non-essential businesses and a 10 kilometer-from-home travel restriction on the population. These are for a period of a month, which might later be extended.
Otherwise, schools remain open, and a 6 pm to 6 am curfew has been changed to 7 pm to 6 am. Eating and drinking establishments (cafés, bars, bistros, brasseries and restaurants) remain closed, as they have been for the last five months.
A debate now rages as to whether these measures are sufficient and, of course, only time will tell. Critics say that keeping schools open is a mistake because, although children rarely become sick with COVID 19, they most definitely are efficient carriers of it, which will spread the virus.
The hope now is that renewed vigilance in wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings may combine with the growing number of persons vaccinated to pull back the rate of infection. The supply of vaccines and the number of those to be vaccinated is forecast to continue to grow steadily, and there is hope that a measure of progress may be detected by May. At that time the prospects for the summer should become more clear. By September, it is expected that the entire adult population of France may be vaccinated.
There is some evidence that currently available vaccines are effective in protecting against the UK and South African variants. The wild card in the COVID 19 deck, for which no one cares to make a prediction, is whether they will provide protection against the Brazilian, Californian and future variants. For an answer, consult this column in a few weeks, when we hope to be able to provide a report.