Italian scientists call for ‘drastic measures’ within days to contain Covid-19 surge

More than 100 Italian academics have written to the government calling for urgent restrictions to avoid thousands more cases and hundred of deaths in Italy from Covid-19.

Italian scientists call for 'drastic measures' within days to contain Covid-19 surge
A Covid-19 patient in intensive care at a hospital near Rome. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

In a joint appeal to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and President Sergio Mattarella, scores of scientists urged Italy's leaders to “take stringent, drastic measures over the next two or three days”.

Italy's new cases currently stand at a record high, with over 16,000 more infections confirmed on Thursday alone – but while individual regions are declaring local curfews, the national government has so far resisted imposing countrywide restrictions.

“As scientists, researchers and university professors we believe it is necessary and urgent to express our strongest concerns about the current phase of the Covid-19 pandemic,” reads the letter, cited by Ansa news agency.

“The longer we wait, the harder the measures will have to be and the longer they'll have to last, thus resulting in a bigger economic impact,” wrote the signatories, who include economists as well as scientific experts. 

They referred to a recent estimate that if coronavirus deaths continue to increase at similar rates, within weeks Italy could lose as many as 500 people per day to Covid-19.

That analysis comes from theoretical physicist Giorgio Parisi, who in a blog for the Huffington Post calculated that if current trends continue, Italy would find itself in the same health crisis as March “within three weeks”.

While the country has massively expanded its testing capacity since then, the percentage of swabs coming back positive has risen worryingly in recent weeks, hitting 9.4 percent nationwide.

Meanwhile admissions to intensive care as well as deaths are increasing, with another 136 fatalities reported on Thursday.

The next two weeks will be crucial for Italy, Parisi warned, calling for “drastic measures NOW”.

The only way to avoid a 'hard' lockdown is to monitor exactly where, when and how infections are taking place, he argued, which would require a massive increase in data collection in an extremely short timeframe.

A growing number of Italian experts are now urging the government to take tougher action.

Earlier this week, public health doctor Walter Ricciardi, one of the government's top advisors on Covid-19, warned that tracing and testing was no longer enough to control the surge in Italy's biggest cities and urged politicians to “be brave”.

While Prime Minister Conte has encouraged people to “limit unnecessary travel”, he also insists that Italy does not need to resort to another nationwide lockdown of the kind it imposed in spring, which shuttered schools and businesses and kept the public almost entirely confined to their homes.

“Now we're in a different situation that we were in in March: back then we didn't have the means to diagnose, now we're readier thanks to the hard work and sacrifices of all,” he said. 

Yet there is concern that Italy's hospitals will find themselves under severe strain once more, as the number of coronavirus patients in intensive care approaches 1,000 and the total number of people in hospital tops 10,000. 

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Italy’s deputy health minister under fire after casting doubt on Covid vaccines

Opposition leaders called for health undersecretary Marcello Gemmato to resign on Tuesday after the official said he was not "for or against" vaccines.

Italy's deputy health minister under fire after casting doubt on Covid vaccines

Gemmato, a pharmacist and member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, made the remark during an appearance on the political talkshow ReStart on Rai 2 on Monday evening.

READ ALSO: Covid vaccines halved Italy’s death toll, study finds

In a widely-shared clip, the official criticises the previous government’s approach to the Covid pandemic, claiming that for a large part of the crisis Italy had the highest death rate and third highest ‘lethality’ rate (the proportion of Covid patients who died of the disease).

When journalist Aldo Cazzullo interjects to ask whether the toll would have been higher without vaccines, Gemmato responds: “that’s what you say,” and claimed: “We do not have the reverse burden of proof.”

The undersecretary goes on to say that he won’t “fall into the trap of taking a side for or against vaccines”.

After Gemmato’s comments, the president of Italy’s National Federation of Medical Guilds, Filippo Anelli, stressed that official figures showed the Italian vaccination campaign had already prevented some 150,000 deaths, slashing the country’s potential death toll by almost half.

Vaccines also prevented eight million cases of Covid-19, over 500,000 hospitalisations, and more than 55,000 admissions to intensive care, according to a report from Italy’s national health institute (ISS) in April 2021.

Gemmato’s comments provoked calls for him to step down, including from the head of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta.

“A health undersecretary who doesn’t take his distance from no-vaxxers is certainly in the wrong job” wrote the leader of the centrist party Action, Carlo Calenda, on Twitter.

Infectious disease expert Matteo Bassetti of Genoa’s San Martino clinic also expressed shock.

“How is it possible to say that there is no scientific proof that vaccines have helped save the lives of millions of people? You just have to read the scientific literature,” Bassetti tweeted. 

In response to the backlash, Gemmato on Tuesday put out a statement saying he believes “vaccines are precious weapons against Covid” and claiming that his words were taken out of context and misused against him.

The Brothers of Italy party was harshly critical of the previous government’s approach to handling the Covid crisis, accusing the former government of using the pandemic as an excuse to “limit freedom” through its use of the ‘green pass’, a proof of vaccination required to access public spaces. 

But since coming into power, Meloni appears to have significantly softened her stance.

Her appointee for health minister, Orazio Schillaci, is a medical doctor who formed part of the team advising the Draghi administration on its handling of the pandemic.

Schillaci, a former dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, has described the former government’s green pass scheme as an “indispensable tool for guaranteeing safety in university classrooms”.

Speaking at a session of the G20 on Tuesday, Meloni referenced the role of vaccines in bringing an end to the Covid pandemic.

“Thanks to the extraordinary work of health personnel, vaccines, prevention, and the accountability of citizens, life has gradually returned to normal,’ the prime minister said in a speech.