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Inserm and CNRS deployed to screen for coronavirus

Image: Governor Tom Wolf [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Research bodies mobilised after public slams French government for failure to test

France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) are to be drafted into ongoing efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The two bodies have listed all the laboratories and equipment under their purview, following the announcement of a plan by the government to step up screening for Covid-19. The French government published a decree on 5 April, allowing it to “requisition” laboratories, equipment and staff to carry out testing for the presence of the virus.

Up to 100,000 tests could be carried out daily under the supervision of Inserm, the government said. 

The CNRS has said that around 50 laboratories are standing by in case they will need to prop up existing capacities. “The requisitioned laboratories will carry out the purely analytical phase of the examination, under the responsibility of a medical biology laboratory,” it said.

The expanded testing capacity is to be deployed just as the country loosens quarantine restrictions imposed throughout much of Europe. Speaking in a televised address to the public, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that the country would begin to end its confinement, or “lockdown”, on 11 May.

At the end of March, health minister Olivier Véran promised that France would be able to test 50,000 people a day by the end of April. However, throughout the month numbers lagged significantly behind this goal, leading to widespread criticism in the media.

Until now, testing in France has largely been restricted to healthcare workers showing symptoms, those with severe respiratory difficulties or known co-morbidities, hospitalised patients and those in emerging virus hotspots.

Véran has now upped the planned figure to 500,000 tests per week. But weekly news magazine L’Obs noted that even with this expansion of testing it would take ten weeks for France to test 10 per cent of its population—a figure which would bring it into line with what has already been achieved in Iceland.

Speaking during a televised press conference on 19 April, French prime minister Édouard Philippe said that “massive [amounts of] tests” would be carried out after 11 May, when the country will take its first steps to emerge from confinement.

Research on the disease continues: a consortium made up of CNRS scientists working at the Sys2Diag laboratory, the biotechnology company SkillCell and Montpellier University Hospital have announced they are working working on a serological screening test, to be made available in May. A double-blind clinical study is also underway at Montpellier University Hospital.

On 16 April, France’s High Authority for Health published its required specifications for a serological test intended to detect if a subject has developed antibodies that combat Covid-19. In addition, Jérôme Golebiowski, professor at the University of the Côte d’Azur’s Institute of Chemistry in Nice and a CNRS member, is leading a study into why coronavirus patients report loss of their sense of smell and taste.

The French government has announced several billions of euros of funding for medical research, epidemiological research and social science since the coronavirus epidemic began.