Row breaks out over Italian doctor’s claim virus ‘no longer exists’

Italian government ministers and health experts on Monday warned there was no evidence to support a claim by a leading doctor that the new coronavirus "no longer exists" in the country.

Row breaks out over Italian doctor's claim virus 'no longer exists'
Alberto Zangrillo, head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan. File photo: AFP

The government is urging caution as the country prepares this week to restart travel: the next big step in easing the national lockdown imposed three months ago.

From Wednesday, some foreign visitors will be able to enter again and people will be able to move between regions.

READ ALSO: Who is allowed to travel to Italy from June 3rd?

But the government has insisted this is one of the most dangerous phases, urging people to abide by social distancing rules and wear masks to prevent the virus from spreading again.

There was widespread concern that the unproven claims would undermine this effort and confuse the public.

“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.

“Someone has to take responsibility for terrorising the country”, added Zangrillo, who has also been a personal doctor to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for around 30 years.

His words prompted cries of disbelief from other experts, and a public warning from the government.

“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.

READ ALSO: Italian regions accused of tampering with virus data ahead of repening

The director of the prestigious Spallazani infectious diseases institute in Rome, Giuseppe Ippolito, said there was no scientific proof the virus had mutated or changed in potency.

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.

International experts also weighed in on Monday.

“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 Zangrillo's claims were “not supported by anything in the scientific literature, and also seem fairly implausible on genetic grounds”.
The Italian government also said it was too early to celebrate, and warned that there were risks involved with the next phase of reopening.
Italy reported 355 new cases of the virus on Sunday, more than 200 of which were in the Lombardy region.

At least 33,500 people are known to have died from Covid-19 in Italy.


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Former Italian PM faces investigation over Covid response

Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte is set to undergo a judicial inquiry over claims his government's response to the Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020 was too slow.

Former Italian PM faces investigation over Covid response

Prosecutors in Bergamo, the northern city that was one of the epicentres of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, targeted Conte after wrapping up their three-year inquiry, according to media reports.

Conte, now president of the populist Five Star movement, was prime minister from 2018 to 2021 and oversaw the initial measures taken to halt the spread of what would become a global pandemic.

Investigating magistrates suspect that Conte and his government underestimated the contagiousness of Covid-19 even though available data showed that cases were spreading rapidly in Bergamo and the surrounding region.

They note that in early March 2020 the government did not create a “red zone” in two areas hit hardest by the outbreak, Nembro and Alzano Lombardo, even though security forces were ready to isolate the zone from the rest of the country.

READ ALSO: ‘Not offensive’: Italian minister defends Covid testing rule for China arrivals

Red zones had already been decreed in late February for around a dozen other nearby municipalities including Codogno, the town where the initial Covid case was reportedly found.

Conte’s health minister Roberto Speranza as well as the president of the Lombardy region, Attilio Fontana, are also under investigation, the reports said.

Bergamo prosecutors allege that according to scientific experts, earlier quarantines could have saved thousands of lives.

Conte, quoted by Il Corriere della Sera and other media outlets, said he was “unworried” by the inquiry, saying his government had acted “with the utmost commitment and responsibility during one of the most difficult moments of our republic.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s constitutional court upholds Covid vaccine mandate as fines kick in

Similar cases have been lodged against officials elsewhere, alleging that authorities failed to act quickly enough against a virus that has killed an estimated 6.8 million people worldwide since early 2020.

In January, France’s top court threw out a case against former health minister Agnes Buzyn, a trained doctor, over her allegedly “endangering the lives of others” by initially playing down the severity of Covid-19.