"Fear the virus, not vaccination," French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on a visit to Landes, in the south-west, where the Delta variant accounts for 70 percent of new coronavirus infections.
While the number of cases continues to fall in France – 24 people per 100,000 are infected – the highly contagious Delta variant is gaining ground. Nationwide, it accounts for 10 percent of recorded cases, up from 2-4 percent a week ago.
In Landes, the worst affected department, Castex on Thursday announced a seven-day action plan that includes thousands more tests and vaccines.
Lamenting the fact that only 200,000 people per day were being vaccinated with first doses, Castex said: “It’s too little, we must do better.”
Depending on the outcome, the government will then decide whether to go ahead with relaxing health measures on 1 July as planned.
He resisted calls by local doctors to introduce compulsory vaccination.
Delta variant clusters
A number of Covid clusters have been identified in the south west, most recently in a nursing home where 23 residents and six staff were infected, 19 of whom had the Delta variant.
Of the 23 residents, 21 had been fully vaccinated. Three have been hospitalised, but not admitted to intensive care.
While vaccination does not provide complete immunity from Covid, an Oxford University study published on Wednesday found the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines were effective in protecting those who had had both doses.
"The good news is that with two doses of anti-Covid vaccine, we are well protected against this Delta variant," Gérard Dubois, professor of public health and member of the Academy of Medicine, told France 24.
"The bad news is that not enough people are being vaccinated in France.”
Two doses needed
Since the start of the vaccination campaign, only a quarter of the population – 19.2 million people – have been fully vaccinated, while 32.5 million have received a first dose.
Twenty percent of elderly people are not vaccinated at all.
In response to the rapid spread of the Delta variant, French authorities reduced the gap between the two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines from five to three weeks.
“The more French people are vaccinated, the more we will be able to protect ourselves against the epidemic, including any variants,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Wednesday.
His comments followed warnings by the European Centres for Disease Control that one dose of the vaccine was not enough to protect against the Delta variant, which it said may account for up to 90 percent of cases across the EU by the end of August.
Younger people more affected
In addition to Landes, the Delta variant has also been identified in the Bas-Rhin département – which includes the city of Strasbourg – as well as in Brittany and Bordeaux, where mass localised vaccination strategies have also been rolled out.
Studies show the Delta variant is more transmissible than previous strains, but it is not yet clear whether the variant makes people sicker. More data is needed said Dr Jacob John, who studies viruses at the Christian Medical College at Vellore, in southern India.
While the original Covid strain affected mainly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, the Delta variant appears to be circulating mostly among the younger generation, who are more likely to be unvaccinated.
“We’re at the beginning of the emergence of this variant,” epidemiologist Anne-Sophie Barret told RFI.
“In Landes we know it is mainly affecting young adults and that’s also the case in Strasbourg, where the cluster was identified at a university before spreading to schools.”
Lifting health restrictions
Wearing masks outside is no longer compulsory in France, while a nighttime curfew was lifted on Sunday.
Some say the move may have been premature given the Delta variant's level of contagion.
However in view of the improving health indicators, Dubois said the lifting of the restrictions was warranted.
"We are in a favourable situation, so we can afford it,” he said.