SCIENTISTS in France are warning of a new Covid-19 variant with mutations that could be more resistant to vaccines and more easily transmissible.
Researchers have revealed worrying new details about the variant they have discovered, which contains 18 mutations – of which at least two could prove a problem for the vaccine rollout.
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The boffins at the Henri Mondor hospital in the Paris region have been probing the new variant since February, when they first identified it.
They say it contains 18 mutations, with two of these – the 501Y and position 452 mutations – potentially more transmissible and more resistant to vaccines than the original Covid-19 virus.
Dr Jean-Michel Pawlotsky, a virologist from the Department of Virology at the Henri Mondor University Hospital, told France Inter: “We have identified two mutations which are interesting: the 501Y mutation, which seems linked to in increased transmissibility of the virus.
“And another mutation in position 452, which has been suggested to potentially decrease sensitivity to the effect of vaccination.”
So far, there appear to be few cases of this variant, dubbed the Henri Mondor variant, but it is said to be spreading quickly.
Dr Pawlotsky told French media outlet LCI: “The appearance of a cluster in a neighbouring hospital to our hospital showed us that these four people have been infected by a new virus.”
According to France Inter, after four cases in Creteil, around 30 cases were found in the south of the country, in the Dordogne department, in the commune of Pontivy.
LCI say that since then, cases have been detected in the Brittany department, in north-western France.
Cases quickly increased to more than 190 people infected.
A statement issued by Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris, a university hospital trust based in Paris and the largest hospital system in Europe, stated: “Within four weeks of its discovery, the new 'Henri-Mondor' variant was found in 29 patients of various geographical origins (Ile-de-France, South-East and South-West of France).
“Its detection frequency has continued to increase since then, with the identification of several clusters and it is increasingly found in samples tested by the Henri-Mondor hospital.”
Most of the major pharmaceutical companies that have developed vaccines have said that they could be quickly modified to make them effective against new variants.
The study about the Henri Mondor variant was published yesterday in the Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal and the researchers are continuing to probe the new variant.
The potential threat of a new mutation comes as Emmanuel Macron is tonight expected to impose a third lockdown on France in a televised address amid surging Covid cases.
Among options the French President is considering are closing all schools and banning travel within the country, according to a government official.
Any such nationwide move would be a departure from the government's policy in recent months, which has focused on regionalised restrictions.
School closures in particular had been seen as a very last resort.
A debate is scheduled in parliament tomorrow that will address the virus situation and the new measures.
“The key factor in our decision-making remains the situation in hospitals”, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said today after Macron hosted his weekly coronavirus strategy meeting.
“After Paris hospital officials warned they would have to start refusing needy patients for lack of space”, he said, “One thing is clear: France will not refuse care for any sick patients. Choosing patients is not an option.”
Mr Attal said decisions were made at the virus meeting but he did not divulge them before the president speaks.
“Whatever path is chosen”, he warned, “we have difficult weeks ahead of us.”
Previous nationwide lockdowns in March and October last year were announced by Macron in televised speeches.
His office said today that the French leader will address the nation at 8pm local time without saying what he will announce.
An overnight nationwide curfew has been in place since January, and all France's restaurants, bars, gyms, cinemas and museums have been closed since October.
In Paris and other regions where the virus is spreading rapidly, residents already have extra restrictions on movement and nonessential stores are closed.
France is now routinely seeing 40,000 new coronavirus cases a day.
The total number of Covid patients in intensive care in France surged past 5,000 yesterday – the highest ICU figure for 11 months.
Earlier this month, Macron refused to apologise for his country’s disastrous virus strategy.
He said: "I can tell you that I have no mea culpa to offer, no remorse, no acknowledgement of failure."
Adding to the country's battle against the disease is that France is well behind the UK on its vaccine rollout following a series of U-turns on the AstraZeneca jab.
Macron initially claimed the remedy was not suitable for those aged over 65 before announcing it shouldn't be given to those under 55 – and then later reintroducing it.
The jab has been backed by Europe's regulatory agency, as well as the World Health Organisation.
Meanwhile, reports in France claim Macron doesn't bother listening to experts on Covid any more – despite soaring cases.
Sources say Macron believes he's such an expert in the spread of coronavirus that he "no longer follows the advice of scientists".
And the president has been blasted in newspaper Le Monde – as France's crisis continues to spiral out of control.
The paper says Macron has flouted the advice of his experts for almost a year after he announced the reopening of schools in advance of scientific advice.
Germany and France were last night slammed for flirting with Vladimir Putin over the Sputnik V vaccine after trashing the AZ jab.
Critics warned they risk handing the Kremlin a major PR victory at a time when it is increasing its aggression towards the EU.
Lithuanian MEP Petras Auštrevičius said Moscow was using the shot as "a well-directed PR stunt" and urged the bloc to reject it.
He told The Sun: "Russia is exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to portray itself as a global power with a so-called strong humanitarian policy line.
"Its intentions are openly hidden in the name of Sputnik V, which if translated, means ‘a satellite’ or a satellite in the orbit of Russia.
"We should not be fooled by Russia’s attempts to present itself as a partner to the West in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic."
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