France Enters Third Lockdown, While Europe’s Vaccine Rollout Is Critiqued As “Unacceptably Slow”
A patient getting tested for COVID-19 at the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in January 2021. French President Emmanuel Macron imposed strict lockdown measures amid of surge of new coronavirus cases.

France is going into its third national lockdown since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, after a deadly third wave hit Europe, causing soaring infection and death rates. With an average of more than 37,000 daily new cases over the past week, tougher restrictions have become inevitable. 

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the new restrictions in a televised address on Wednesday, saying that the government had waited “until the last moment” to impose the latest lockdown. 

The daily death toll reached 355 on Wednesday and health authorities recorded 569 new intensive care patients in 24 hours on Tuesday, the highest since April 2020. Over 5,000 COVID-19 patients are currently in intensive care units.

Infections have doubled since February, likely due to the spread of the more transmissible B.1.1.7 SARS-CoV2 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom. France “risks losing control” without strict measures, said Macron. 

France is approaching the grim milestone of 100,000 total COVID deaths, with 95,798 deaths recorded as of Wednesday. 

Lockdown Measures Put in Place

Lockdown restrictions include classes being taught remotely for the next three weeks, non-essential businesses will be closed, and travel within the country will be banned for a month after the Easter weekend (2-4 April). Residents will be limited to a 10 kilometer radius from their homes and will be subject to a curfew between 7pm and 6am. 

“We must limit all contact as much as we can, including family gatherings. We know now: these are where the virus spreads,” said Macron. 

Some 3,000 additional intensive care beds will be added to hospitals in the hardest-hit regions in an attempt to prevent health systems from becoming overwhelmed. 

The national lockdown will begin on Saturday and will last four weeks.

Emmanuel Macron, the French President, in a televised address on Wednesday announcing the country’s third COVID-19 lockdown.

Over a dozen regions were put under partial lockdown in early March with night-time curfews. The regional restrictions avoided closing schools or stores in an effort to keep the economy open. 

The existing restrictions at the regional level, which were implemented in early March in an attempt to avoid stricter measures, were unable to curb the spread of the virus. Macron was hesitant to impose nationwide restrictions, resisting calls from experts for tougher measures since January.  

“The outlook is worse than frightening. We’re already at the level of the second wave, and we’re quickly getting close to the threshold of the first wave,” said Jean-Michel Constantin, head of the intensive care unit at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, in an interview on RMC radio on Monday. 

According to the French Health Minister, Olivier Veran, France could reach the peak of the epidemic in seven to 10 days, “then we need two extra weeks to reach a peak in intensive care units (ICUs) that could occur at the end of April,” he told Inter radio on Thursday.

“We have endured a year of suffering and sacrifice, but if we stay united and organized, we will reach the end of the tunnel,” said Macron. “April will be a critical month.” 

France’s vaccination campaign is seen as the path out of the pandemic and will be accelerated in the coming weeks, according to Macron. France, along with the rest of the European Union, was plagued by a slow rollout of vaccines due both to shortages as well as a lack of a well-coordinated health sector response in many countries, with systems that are either highly fragmented or else too centralized to permit for smooth and efficient rollouts at the local level.   

WHO Calls Europe’s Vaccination Program “Unacceptably Slow”

Amidst rising infection and death rates in the WHO European region, which encompasses 53 countries, the region’s vaccine “rollout is unacceptably slow,” said Hans Kluge, the WHO Regional Director for Europe, in a statement released on Wednesday.

Europe has recorded 1.6 million new cases and close to 24,000 deaths in the last week, quickly nearing one million total deaths. It is the second most affected region by SARS-CoV2 in the world. The B.1.1.7 variant has a greater public health impact and requires numerous measures in place to control it, said the statement. 

Currently, 27 countries in Europe are under partial or nationwide lockdown and 23 have tightened restrictions over the past two weeks. However, some 13 countries have ease measures and nine plan to follow suit. 

“My message to governments in the region is…that now is not the time to relax measures. We can’t afford not to heed the danger,” said Kluge. “We must keep reining in the virus.”

Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

“Vaccines present our best way out of this pandemic,” Kluge said. However, “as long as coverage remains low, we need to apply the same public health and social measures as we have in the past to compensate for delayed schedules.”

In addition to implementing public health measures to limit transmission, efforts must be made to scale up vaccine production and administer as many jabs as possible, as quickly as possible. 

“We must speed up the process by ramping up manufacturing, reducing barriers to administering vaccines, and using every single vial we have in stock, now,” said Kluge. 

Only 10% of the region’s population have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. While there has been a shortage of vaccines, countries must avoid vaccine nationalism and hoarding supplies, the statement said. 

Once a nation’s healthcare workers and vulnerable individuals have been vaccinated, Kluge urged governments to “share excess doses of WHO-approved vaccines with COVAX or with countries in need” in order to ensure that healthcare workers and older individuals in every country are inoculated. 

This message was echoed by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, at a press conference on Thursday, who made an “urgent request to countries with surplus vaccines that have WHO emergency use listings to share 10 million doses with COVAX.”

In order to reach the goal of vaccinating all healthcare workers in the first 100 days of 2021, rich countries have nine days remaining to to donate excess doses to the COVAX facility, which has run out of doses at a critical time.

WTO Head Says Pharma Companies Should Either Scale Up Manufacturing Or Share Know-How with LMICs

Meanwhile, the new Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, called it “unacceptable” that low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) were being left at the “end of the queue” for COVID-19 vaccines. 

The kind of inequities we see in vaccine access are really not acceptable, you can’t have a situation in which…10 countries have administered 70% of vaccine doses in the world, and there are countries that don’t have one single dose,” said Okonjo-Iweala at a WTO trade forecast press conference on Thursday. 

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the WTO, at a press conference on Thursday.

She urged pharma companies to follow AstraZeneca’s lead in making deals with production facilities in LMICs to expand the manufacturing capacity for their vaccines. 

“Let’s have the same kind of arrangement that AstraZeneca has with the Serum Institute of India,” the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and the main source of COVID-19 vaccines for LMICs, Okonjo-Iweala said. 

Voluntary licensing of technology could begin to address the inequity in access to vaccines, she said. 

While an intellectual property waiver for certain COVID-19 tools and technology – designed to allow more drug manufacturers to make the vaccines and improve access – is under consideration by WTO member states, Okonjo-Iweala said this was an issue for the next pandemic. 

Instead of pursuing the WTO TRIPS waiver, the focus now to meet the threat from COVID should be put on enlarging manufacturing capacity, she said.

Image Credits: France24, Flickr – International Monetary Fund, BBC.

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