French virus testing labs under strain amid resurgent demand

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Seminar Kibir, health lab technician prepares chemicals to process analysis of some nasal swab samples to test for COVID-19 at the Hospital of Argenteuil, north of Paris, Friday Sept. 25, 2020. France's health agency announced Thursday evening that the country has had 52 new deaths and has detected over 16,000 new cases of coronavirus in 24 hours. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

ARGENTEUIL – France’s COVID-19 resurgence is palpable in the buzzing biology lab of this public hospital in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil.

Tube after tube arrive with new nasal swabs, now about 240 per day. And the lab director struggles to obtain enough reagents to keep up with escalating demand.

More than 1 million of France’s 67 million people took a virus test over the past week, putting labs like this under growing strain. Getting a virus test in Paris this month has involved long waits, both to be tested and to receive the result, complicating authorities’ efforts to trace the epidemic in real time.

“Since Aug. 15, we’re seeing a constant increase in the number of positive patients,” Laurence Courdavault, head of the Argenteuil hospital’s medical biology department, said Friday.

“The staff is tired and in particular the technicians who work in this department. Honestly, they’re exhausted,” Courdavault told The Associated Press as she glided through the corridors of the sprawling 1990s-era complex 10 kilometers (six miles) northwest of Paris.

In a careful ballet accompanied by the quiet hum of machines, masked lab technicians disinfect, sort and label the samples with bar-code stickers, and robotic arms guide them through automated molecular platforms beneath tinted-glass hoods, used to reach into the samples’ genetic material.

While France suffered testing shortages early in the pandemic, ramped-up testing since this summer has helped authorities track a rising tide of infections across the country. More than 15,000 new cases were reported Friday, and the Paris hospital system is starting to delay some non-virus surgeries to free up space for COVID-19 patients.

The government is shutting all restaurants and bars in the Marseille region this weekend, curtailing access to the French Open and imposing other restrictions it hopes slow the spread and avert new, economically damaging lockdowns.