By Matthias Blamont

PARIS (Reuters) – The leaders of two federations representing thousands of private laboratories across France cast doubt on the country’s ability to more than double coronavirus testing before the country begins unwinding its lockdown on May 11.

The industry officials cited two looming bottlenecks: a potential shortage of workers able to conduct tests and the availability of government-approved reagents, with countries around the world racing to get hold of testing kits.

Mass testing is critical to France’s ability to emerge safely from a now six-week old lockdown.

France will switch to an aggressive doctrine on COVID-19 testing from May 11, aiming for 700,000 nasal swab tests per week, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Tuesday said.

This means France must nearly triple its current capacity in just a fortnight.

“I’m not sure this goal of 700,000 is reasonable,” Francois Blanchecotte, head of the Syndicat des Biologistes federation representing some 4,000 labs, told Reuters. “One limitation will be the number of people able to do testing on such a scale.”

France is not alone in scrambling to test more widely. Britain was on track to meet a target of 100,000 tests per day by Thursday, its health minister said this week, although recent data shows about 43,000 daily tests being completed.

Swab tests involve collecting a sample from either a person’s nasal passage or throat. A reagent is then added to determine whether there is an infection.

France has authorised about 40 reagents for use in COVID-19 testing, manufactured by large pharmaceutical groups like Switzerland’s Roche and the United States’ Abbott Laboratories, as well as small and mid-sized companies.

SCRAMBLE FOR REAGENTS

Lionel Barrand, who leads the Syndicat National des Jeunes Biologistes Medicaux federation, cautioned this number might be inadequate and that laboratories were already having difficulties sourcing reagents in France and from abroad.

China, where the global pandemic originated, is an important source market of reagents.

“Will there be enough reagents? We’re still seeing tensions on supply at a national level,” Barrand said.

France had the logistics to scale up testing, he said. “But that will work only if we have enough reagents and swabs.”

A health ministry spokeswoman said France had taken steps with international suppliers to secure supplies of reagents. Meanwhile the French health industry regulator had approved a new locally made cotton swab to ease pressure on swab imports.

Countries around the world hope blood tests meant to show whether people exposed to the disease have developed antibodies thought to offer some immunity will also guide efforts to restart their economies.

But serological testing has so far proved unreliable and questions persist over the human body’s immunity memory after coronavirus infection.

That places more pressure on nasal swab testing. Barrand said clarity was needed on which symptoms — which include headaches, fever, dry coughs and a loss of taste — necessitated testing.

“If every person presenting with a small symptom turns up, the system will collapse,” he said.

(Reporting by Matthias Blamont; Editing by Richard and William Maclean)

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