700,000 virological tests per week, starting May 11. This is the course set by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to succeed in the deconfinement of France. An amount appeared necessary to diagnose symptomatic people – based on an average of 3000 new cases per day -, as well as the twenty individuals that each patient is likely to have infected, these famous “contact cases”.
→ READ. Are we going to run out of screening tests?
How to reach such a goal, when until now, hospitals and city laboratories did not perform more than 300,000 tests per week, according to data communicated by the general direction of health? ” In reality, based on Social Security figures, we did 130-140,000 weekly tests, valued Philippe Froguel, professor at CHU Lille and Imperial College London. And this figure has even tended to decrease since the end of April “, underlines the director of the European institute of genomics of the diabetes (EGID), which transformed his laboratory to make there tests of Covid-19.
Chinese robots to the rescue
To increase the pace, the Ministry of Health is counting on automation, and more particularly on twenty test robots purchased at the end of March from China. Capable of carrying out more than 2,000 tests per day, these machines were sent to the main teaching hospitals in the territory, as well as to two private laboratories, as revealed by an investigation by the Radio France investigation cell.
Problem: the delivery times have been stretched, and the start-up of the machines has proven to be complex. According to Philippe Froguel, some of these robots are not yet operational. As for “Those who have successfully operated them are disappointed because the machines are ultimately unable to do more than 1,500 tests per day. “
Swab shortages and reagents
Other obstacles stand in the way of the government’s ambitions, starting with the lack of equipment. While some laboratories are alerting to the shortage of swabs, these long cotton swabs that are inserted into the nose of patients before being analyzed, others tire of the dropper deliveries of reagents, essential for the detection of virus. “Our supplier has alerted us to a possible shortage as early as next week”, says Professor Froguel. Nobody gives us any indication, we feel abandoned ”.
Xavier Palette, too, says duty “Fight every day to get reagents”. For the head of the medical biology service at the Sud Essonne hospital center, also at the head of the national union of hospital biology, “Theoretically 700,000 tests per week are possible, when we know that usually laboratories receive 500,000 people a day in France”. In practice, however, the low stocks of personnel protections, including overcoats, may dampen momentum.
“There is no risk of being overwhelmed”
“We want to commit to a capacity increase, but we need a minimum of visibility”, abounds with the president of the National Union of Young Medical Biologists Lionel Barrand, for whom one of the priority issues is recruitment. “The teams have been working a lot for two months, they are wrung out, warns the liberal biologist. OI’m not going to need arms. “
Unless, as François Blanchecotte hopes, the real screening needs remained well below capacity. “The government is based on the high range of 3,000 new cases per day, but in Indre-et-Loire (a green area, note), we are very far today, says the president of the Syndicate of biologists. Unless a huge cluster appears, with hundreds of infected people to sample, there is no risk of being overwhelmed. “
And that could well continue, provided that the population remains cautious, insists Lionel Barrand. “Without social distancing or barrier gestures, 700,000 tests, that would not be enough to contain the epidemic. But even 7 million tests would not be enough. “