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Coronavirus may have circulated ‘unnoticed for weeks’ in Italy, say researchers

Italian researchers said the rising number of cases does not mean the virus is spreading, as most were people who had caught it previously but had not been tested until now.

Coronavirus may have circulated 'unnoticed for weeks' in Italy, say researchers
Researchers said studying the virus in Italy "will help understand the epidemic better, and contain it". Photo; AFP

The new coronavirus had been “circulating unnoticed for weeks” in Italy, experts in Milan said on Friday after studying its progression in the country.”

“The virus circulated unnoticed for several weeks before the first ascertained cases… perhaps since mid-January,” Massimo Galli, the director of the Biomedical Research Institute, told AFP.

Studying the virus in Italy “will help understand the epidemic better, and contain it”, he said.

Photo: AFP

The virus mutates from person to person, he said, so researchers will be looking at why Italy has the largest number of cases in Europe and “the differences between this and the coronavirus in China”.

That will help in terms of treatment and the potential development of a vaccine, he added.

Some 650 people have tested positive for the virus in Italy, though only 303 are considered serious clinical cases.

READ ALSO: Is it still OK to visit Italy amid the coronavirus outbreak?

Galli's team at the Sacco hospital in Milan, lead by immunology professor Claudia Balotta, worked on samples taken from three patients in the “red zone” around Codogno in Lombardy, home to Italy's first known case of COVID-19.

They isolated the Italian strain in just four days.

The small town of Codogno in northern Italy is home to a 38-year-old man dubbed “patient one”.
“Patient zero”, who passed the virus to the 38-year-old, has yet to be found, but “patient one” is considered the source of both the Codogno outbreak and another in the Veneto region.

The 38-year-old, hospitalised a week ago, passed the virus to his heavily pregnant wife, a friend, and men who were regulars at a bar in Codogno, before going on to infect doctors, nurses and other hospital patients as well.

READ ALSO:

The virus has killed 17 people in Italy over the past week, all of whom were either elderly or had pre-existing health issues.

The number of cases of infection reported has risen steadily each day, though Galli said that did not mean the virus was spreading.

Most were people who had caught it previously, but had not been tested until now.

Balotta said it would “take weeks” to determine the exact date of arrival of this strain in Italy, saying results would likely only come “once the epidemic is over”.

 

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COVID-19

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”

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