FRANCE - COVID-19

France launches Covid saliva tests in classrooms in bid to avoid closing schools

A French primary school pupil takes part in a saliva test for Covid-19 at his establishment in Bordeaux in late February. Saliva tests began widespread deployment on 1 March with the goal of 300,000 tests per week by the middle of the month.
A French primary school pupil takes part in a saliva test for Covid-19 at his establishment in Bordeaux in late February. Saliva tests began widespread deployment on 1 March with the goal of 300,000 tests per week by the middle of the month. AFP - PHILIPPE LOPEZ

Saliva tests for Covid-19 infections among pupils has began in earnest in French primary schools, with the government hoping to conduct 300,000 weekly tests by mid March. Observers believe the tests are a last-ditch effort to avoid school closures in one of few countries to maintain classes through the second and third epidemic waves.

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France hopes to remain one of few large countries not to close schools to contain a worsening coronavirus epidemic with the mass rollout of tests using saliva samples. 

“The fundamental objective… is for France’s schools to remain open,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said of the programme during a visit to a primary school in the Haute-Saône department.

 

“To accomplish this, we have to carry out as many tests as possible,” said the minister. “We have the means in terms of tests and logistics to do so, even if the rollout will be gradual.”

Blanquer said France will be able to carry out 300,000 saliva tests per week by mid March. Health authorities expect the tests to help prevent infections spreading in schools by identifying pupils who already have the virus. 

Attempt to avoid closures

The tests, carried out with parental consent, mainly target primary schools, where children are generally aged 6 to 10. 

Less invasive than nasal swabs, the saliva tests involve the child spitting into a vial and for the samples to be quickly analysed for coronavirus antigens in a laboratory. 

The expanded programme comes after experimental phases and arrives as schools throughout the country reopen after two-week winter holiday periods, whose beginning and ending is staggered across three zones throughout the country. 

It also comes as 20 of about a hundred administrative departments are on heightened alert due to more contagious variants of the new coronavirus and pressure on hospitals. 

Most areas on alert are in the north, east and southeast, including three departments along the French Riviera. The cities of Nice in the south and Dunkirk in the north have already imposed weekend lockdowns to combat their particularly high infection rates. 

Changing consensus about infection in schools

France is one of few large countries to have avoided closing schools, and was one of few to reopen schools in late June 2020, as the first wave of infection waned, rather than waiting until September. 

The programme presents a shift in attitude towards the amount of attention required for schools, whose propensity for the spread of the virus has long been downplayed by French authorities. 

There is now wide consensus among epidemiologists that, contrary to what French authorities have downplayed, the coronavirus does spread among school pupils, even if they are less likely than adults to show symptoms.

“Scientific research has evolved and we know now that the virus spreads between children, and from children to adults,”Antoine Flahault of the Global Health Institute at the University of Geneva told French newspaper Le Parisien.

“Between the curfew, the local lockdowns and working from home, children are virtually the only ones with social contact. If infections are rising, they are part of the explanation.” 

The education ministry there were no plans to consider closing school schools for the moment. The first tests began last Monday.

Studies of more contagious variants of the new coronavirus first detected in Brazil, Britain and South Africa have found that children are not spared, even if they are less likely to show symptoms. 

France is currently closing classes of pupils infected with the Brazilian or South African variants.

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