Jean-François Delfraissy: The Man Who Won’t Make a Drama out of a Crisis

Since the coronavirus crisis hit France, one man, more than any other, has had the ear of President Macron - Jean-François Delfraissy, the man put in charge of the government’s Covid-19 scientific council. The Paris immunologist is the perfect man to be a triage consultant in these testing times, coming, as he does, with proven background in crisis situations.

Posted vendredi, avril 17 2020
Jean-François Delfraissy: The Man Who Won’t Make a Drama out of a Crisis

Death toll rises… for over a month now the eyes of the world have been focused on coronavirus counters, rolling news updates, the latest grim dispatches from the frontline. Everywhere is contamination, death and misery wrapped in a blanket of economic catastrophe. Shouldering the burden of all this since March 11th, Delfraissy and his council have worked valiantly to come up with a viable response.

“Ignoring the lockdown amounts to collective suicide,” stressed the soon-to-be 72 year old during one of his conferences, not mincing his words as the collective frustration at being confined to their homes began to wear on millions of his countrymen and women.


Authority figure


It’s difficult not to be impressed by the taciturn figure: when it comes to public health emergencies, he has a proven track record of knowing what to do and where and when to do it, he spent, after all, his formative years at the center of his country’s fight against the Aids epidemic in the 1980s. He would go on to be appointed France’s head Aids researcher. Now, as then, the world is facing a new and deadly threat about which little is known. This requires intuition and determination. 


In the 2000s he was the go-to expert for successive French health ministers and presidents, during the Zika, H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks, co-ordinating the Elysée Palace’s French and Africa response during the latter. As with Aids, Ebola instilled a high level of fear, especially in West Africa, where it claimed the lives of 11,000 people.


Delfraissy was instrumental in the creation of Reacting, a consortium of multi-disciplined researchers brought together to provide swift solutions to public health emergencies.


Shining a light into the unknown


Faced with the current crisis and the risk of pandemic panic, Delfraissy has played a decisive role, his serenity, expertise and intuition radiating outward, giving a public which often does not know what to think the wherewithal to keep calm and carry on. Against the advice of many, he endorsed Japanese drug Favipiravir as a treatment for Covid-19 which, combined with other medicines, he is backing to curb the coronavirus.


Contradictory facts on the ground, heightened pressure, the difficulty of organizing a coordinated response in the face of a new and developing threat… Delfraissy has seen it all before. So when the government decided it needed to put a human face to their ‘wartime cabinet’ it was to him they turned, a man who, through his academic background, experience and temperament, ticked all the boxes required for this mission: a capacity to put together a team of specialists around a common objective, manage their egos and get them to set aside their differences, solid political nous – essential when dealing a topic as potentially combustible as an outbreak – sensitivity, a level head… “stress? I don’t let it get to me, what good would that do!?. I hate tension and conflict,” he confessed to French daily Libération some years back.


But it’s not just his professional acumen that people appreciate in Delfraissy, he is also admired for his empathy, authenticity and humility. “He is someone that has the deepest devotion, knows what to do and how to get there,” adds a longtime colleague. He showed his humility back in March when he confessed to Paris Match magazine that he initially under-estimated the danger of Covid-19, remarking, “This is my third major public health crisis, I went through HIV, I went through Ebola and Zika, but this is a crisis the likes of which the world has not seen before,” said the man on whose advice the French government put the country into lockdown.  


Preparing the post-Covid-19 world


Delfraissy took a look at the developing pandemic and came to the conclusion that shutting down the country was the only way to avoid the hospitals being overrun and putting doctors in a situation where they would have to decide who gets to live and who has to die. For him the goal was clear: avoid a massive, rapid surge of seriously ill needing admission to hospital. As France reaches the end of its fifth week in lockdown, the objective remains simple, “to reduce the circulation of the virus throughout the country.”

And it seems to be working.

During his address to the nation on Monday night, Emmanuel Macron announced that a phased lifting of the lockdown would begin on May 11th – a supplementary stage in the struggle against a virus that was never going to go from ‘red alert’ to ‘all clear’.

Prudence and clairvoyance, humility and determination, just like Delfraissy, these are qualities we could all do with at the moment.