Coronavirus: Italy’s health minister says restrictions ‘can’t be relaxed’ in March

Italy will not relax its current coronavirus restrictions under the next emergency decree due by March 5th, the health minister said on Wednesday.

Coronavirus: Italy's health minister says restrictions 'can't be relaxed' in March
Italian health minister Roberto Speranza. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Ministers are currently evaluating measures to be included in the forthcoming decree – the first to be released under the new government led by Mario Draghi.

READ ALSO: How will Italy's coronavirus strategy change under the new government?

Speaking in the Senate on Wednesday afternoon, the country's health minister Roberto Speranza said current rules could not be eased due to a rising infection rate, and that local red zones would be “indispensible” in stemming the spread of new variants.

He said the next decree would be in force from March 5th until April 6th.

The decision to keep current measures in place came despite increasing pressure on the government to reopen cinemas, theatres, gyms, swimming pools and restaurants.

Speranza did not give any further details of the contents of the next emergency decree, and did not confirm whether it may also include additional restrictions.

He said the key RT transmission rate was close to passing the crucial 1 threshold, meaning “great prudence is still needed”.

“In this last mile we absolutely cannot let our guard down. At the moment there are not the epidemiological conditions to relax the measures.”

He said there was “light at the end of the tunnel” thanks to the vaccine rollout, despite delays.

The country's vaccination campaign has struggled, parttly due to Europe-wide supply problems. Only some 1.3 million people have been fully vaccinated so far.

Restaurants and bars remain closed in many regions of Italy under its current tiered system of restrictions. Photo: AFP

Italy's decision not to relax the rules was in line with policies in neighbouring countries, Speranza said.

“The main European nations have chosen a common line of maximum rigour,” he said. “Along the same line, we've already extended the ban on travel between regions.”

“It would be a serious mistake if we faced the last phase of the fight against the pandemic in any other way,”

The emergency decree is scheduled to be revised as the country sees an upturn in the infection rate, which has been partly attributed to the circulation of new variants.

The number of new cases in Italy overall has now been rising for three weeks in a row, Speranza said.

READ ALSO: Where and how much are coronavirus cases rising in Italy?

The latest health data showed the more infectious UK variant accounted for 17.8% of cases in Italy overall, and “will soon be prevalent in our country,” he said.

Recent studies have shown that the variant may account for up to 50 percent of cases in some regions.

“Fortunately it does not compromise the effectiveness of vaccines, while the other two variants, South African and Brazilian, could do so,” Speranza said.

“It is still possible to contain their spread, as long as very rigorous measures are adopted and quickly enforced,” he added, referring to localised lockdowns.
While further studies are carried out on the variants, he said “targeted measures are needed, with enhanced red or orange zones” to keep infection rates under control.

At the moment, hard-hit Italian towns and provinces are declaring their own additional rules in addition to the regional zone classifications determined by the national government, creatng a complex web of changing restrictions.

“The need for 25 local red zones was reported by five regions,” Speranza said. “Some were decided due to the outbreaks of cases caused by the English variant, others to the presence of the Brazilian or South African variant”.

“These restrictive measures are indispensable,” he said.

“We are aware that they involve sacrifices, but there is no other way at the moment to avoid a worsening of the epidemiological picture”.

Find all of The Local's latest updates on the coronavirus situation in Italy here.

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Semen ‘a vehicle’ for monkeypox infection, say Italian health experts

Researchers in Italy who were first to identify the presence of monkeypox in semen are broadening their testing, saying early results suggest sperm can transmit infection.

Semen 'a vehicle' for monkeypox infection, say Italian health experts

A team at Rome’s Spallanzani Hospital, which specialises in infectious diseases, revealed in a study published on June 2nd that the virus DNA was detected in semen of three out of four men diagnosed with monkeypox.

They have since expanded their work, according to director Francesco Vaia, who said researchers have found the presence of monkeypox in the sperm of 14 infected men out of 16 studied.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How is Italy dealing with rising monkeypox cases?

“This finding tells us that the presence of the virus in sperm is not a rare or random occurrence,” Vaia told AFP in an interview.

He added: “The infection can be transmitted during sexual intercourse by direct contact with skin lesions, but our study shows that semen can also be a vehicle for infection.”

Researchers at Spallanzani identified Italy’s first cases of monkeypox, found in two men who had recently returned from the Canary Islands.

The latest results reported by Vaia have not yet been published or subject to peer review.

Since early May, a surge of monkeypox cases has been detected outside of the West and Central African countries where the disease has long been endemic. Most of the new cases have been in Western Europe.

More than 3,400 confirmed cases and one death have now been reported to the World Health Organisation from more than 50 countries this year.

The vast majority of cases so far have been observed in men who have sex with men, of young age, chiefly in urban areas, in “clustered social and sexual networks”, according to the WHO.

It is investigating cases of semen testing positive for monkeypox, but has maintained the virus is primarily spread through close contact.

Meg Doherty, director of the WHO’s global HIV, hepatitis and sexually-transmitted infection programmes, said last week: “We are not calling this a sexually-transmitted infection.”

Could antivirals curb the spread of monkeypox?

Spallanzani researchers are now trying to ascertain how long the virus is present in sperm after the onset of symptoms.

In one patient, virus DNA was detected three weeks after symptoms first appeared, even after lesions had disappeared – a phenomenon Vaia said had been seen in the past in viral infections such as Zika.

That could indicate that the risk of transmission of monkeypox could be lowered by the use of condoms in the weeks after recovery, he said.

The Spallanzani team is also looking at vaginal secretions to study the presence of the virus.

A significant finding from the first study was that when the virus was cultured in the lab, it was “present in semen as a live, infectious virus efficient in reproducing itself”, Vaia told AFP.

Vaia cautioned that there remained many unanswered questions on monkeypox, including whether antiviral therapies could shorten the time in which people with the virus could infect others.

Another is whether the smallpox vaccine could protect people from the monkeypox virus.

“To study this we will analyse people who were vaccinated 40 years ago before human smallpox was declared to have disappeared,” Vaia said.