'Every minute counts' as France detects COVID-19 variant first found in England

MARSEILLE/PARIS (Reuters) - French authorities said on Sunday they were racing to contain the more infectious variant of COVID-19 first found in Britain, which has now been detected in France’s Mediterranean port of Marseille and in the Alps.

FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective face masks walk near the Old Port (Vieux Port) in Marseille, France, September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Marseille Mayor Benoit Payan said seven to eight people had tested positive for the new variant in the city, while tests were underway on 30 others who may also have been exposed to it.

“Right now, every minute counts in terms of preventing the spread of this English variant,” Payan told reporters.

The local health authority in the Hautes-Alpes region, home to many ski resorts which attract British visitors, said the variant had also been discovered there.

France has the seventh-biggest COVID-19 death toll in the world. Deaths rose by 151 over the last 24 hours to reach a total of 67,750, while the number of new, confirmed cases rose by 15,944 to stand at around 2.78 million.

The variant, first found in England late last year, has been blamed by the British government for a surge in cases threatening to overrun British hospitals in the last month.

In response to the discovery of the variant in Marseille, the city imposed moved the start time of an evening curfew two hours earlier to 6 p.m.

Marseille joined other major cities such as Strasbourg and Dijon in having longer curfew hours. In Paris, 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew hours remain unchanged for now.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government has said it will not rule out stricter measures if the COVID-19 situation worsens in France.

Macron has been working on speeding up the country’s vaccine rollout. France had delivered just 7,000 shots more than a week after launching its vaccination campaign on Dec. 27. The government said a vaccine made by Moderna will arrive in France this week.

Reporting by Marc Leras in Marseille, and Sudip Kar-Gupta and Matthieu Protard in Paris; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff