A claim by a leading Italian doctor that the new coronavirus “no longer exists” in the country sparked a furore yesterday, with the government urging caution.
Italy is preparing this week for the next big step in easing a national lockdown imposed three months ago.
From tomorrow, foreign tourists will be able to enter the country again and people will be able to move between regions.
However, the government has insisted that this is one of the most dangerous phases of a pandemic that has claimed over 33,000 lives in the country.
It has urged people to abide by social distancing rules and wear masks to prevent the virus from spreading once again.
“In reality, the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy,” said Alberto Zangrillo, head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, the capital of the northern Lombardy region, which has been the worst-hit by the pandemic.
“The swabs performed over the past 10 days have showed a viral load that is absolutely infinitesimal in quantitative terms compared to those carried out a month or two months ago,” he said in an interview on RAI television on Sunday.
That prompted cries of disbelief from other experts, who said Zangrillo may have mistaken a higher detection rate of asymptomatic cases for diminished potency of the virus.
“In a situation where the numbers of severe cases are falling, there may be time to start observing people with less severe symptoms – giving the impression that the virus is changing,” said Martin Hibberd, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Dr Oscar MacLean, of the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, said that Zangrillo’s claims were “not supported by anything in the scientific literature, and also seem fairly implausible on genetic grounds”.
The government also said it was too early to celebrate.
“Pending scientific evidence to support the thesis that the virus has disappeared, I would invite those who say they are sure of it not to confuse Italians,” health ministry undersecretary Sandra Zampa said in a statement.
National Health Council head Franco Locatelli said he was “baffled” by Zangrillo’s comments.
“It’s enough to look at the number of new positive cases confirmed every day to see the persistent circulation in Italy of the new coronavirus,” he said.
The director of the prestigious Spallazani infectious diseases institute in Rome, Giuseppe Ippolito, also said that there was no scientific proof that the coronavirus had mutated or changed in potency.
A contact-tracing app to help the country avoid a virus relapse was being launched Monday in four of the country’s 20 regions, with others soon to follow.
Italy reported 355 new cases of the virus on Sunday, mostly in the Lombardy region.
The World Health Organisation also stressed that the new coronavirus has not suddenly become less pathogenic, despite Zangrillo’s claims.
“That is not the case at all,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told a virtual press briefing.
Ryan, an expert epidemiologist, spelled out the dangers in believing that the virus is becoming less potent.
“New viruses in human populations can do one of two things: they can evolve and become less pathogenic, or sometimes they can become even more pathogenic,” he explained.
Ryan said it is not in the interests of the virus to kill everyone it infected because it could survive better if it can keep transmitting between people.
“We need to be careful: this is still a killer virus,” he said. “We need to be exceptionally careful not to create a sense that, all of a sudden, the virus, by its own volition, has now decided to be less pathogenic.
“That is not the case at all.”
Ryan detailed a possible explanation for what Zangrillo claimed he had observed.
“It may, in some ways, have something to do with the dose and length of intensity of exposure,” the Irishman explained. “In other words, the absolute amount of virus you’re exposed to can determine how severe, ultimately, your illness can be.
“That has been proven with other diseases; we don’t know that that’s the case for Covid-19.
“It may not be that the virus itself is becoming less potent: it may be that we are, as a community, successfully reducing the number, intensity and frequency of exposure to that virus.
“On the face of it, the virus then looks weaker – but it may be weaker because we’re doing better, not because the virus is weakening.”
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