‘56 million by June’: Italy unveils new plan to accelerate Covid vaccines

Italy has been criticised over the speed of its vaccine rollout so far, but is that about to change under ambitious acceleration plans laid out by the new government?

‘56 million by June’: Italy unveils new plan to accelerate Covid vaccines
A man enters a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Rome on February 18th, 2021. Photo: Tiziana FABI/AFP

Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi on Monday appointed army general Francesco Paolo Figliuolo as the country’s new Covid-19 emergency commissioner, replacing Domenico Arcuri. 

Draghi also appointed a new head of Italy’s Department for Civil Protection, Fabrizio Curcio.

The changes in leadership are part of the government’s plan to overhaul the national Covid-19 vaccination programme, with Draghi repeatedly saying that picking up speed is a priority since he took office in mid-February.

The vaccine rollout must involve the army, civil protection and volunteer services, Draghi said in an address to the Senate, adding that “we have a duty to make (vaccines) possible in every available public and private space”.

As of Tuesday March 2nd, Italy has administered 4.3 million shots in total since the vaccination programme began just over two months ago.

Only around 1.4 million people have had both doses, amounting to 2.3 percent of the population, according to the latest official data.

Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister’s office, released details of the acceleration plan on Monday, saying the aim is to have a total of 56 million doses administered by June.

As two shots are needed for each patient to reach immunity, this would cover under half of Italy’s population of 60.3 million.

READ ALSO: Where to register for a Covid-19 vaccine in your region of Italy

Currently, around 108,000 doses are being administered daily.  At this rate, Italy would not meet its stated target of vaccinating most of the adult population until December 2021, instead of September as hoped.

The government said the aim is to have 200 thousand doses administered per day in March, for a total of 6.2 million doses this month, Italian media reports.

The number is set to rise to 400 thousand per day in April (12 million per month), 500 thousand in May (15.5 million) and 600 thousand in June (18 million).

To facilitate this acceleration, the government reportedly plans to increase the number of vaccination sites in Italy to 2,000. These are expected to be operational by April.

Italy’s vaccination campaign symbol at the Tor Vergata hospital in Rome. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The previous government in January announced plans to build 1,500 ‘pop-up’ vaccination kiosks in towns and cities across the country, though stressed that most of those would not be opened until vaccines are rolled out to the general public.

At the moment the jab is only available to priority groups, and those eligible need to register with their local health authority.

READ ALSO: Who is in Italy’s Covid-19 vaccine priority groups?

Italy began its programme by offering the vaccine to healthcare workers, over-80s and care home residents.

After the programme stalled in early February due to hold-ups in the supply chain, Italy expanded the program by offering jabs to millions more people, including essential workers, the clinically vulnerable and over-55s.

Most regions of Italy began expanding vaccinations to over-80s from February or March, while at the same time offering the first doses of the AstraZeneca jab to younger, healthier key workers. 

As of early February, three vaccines are available in Italy: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Italy has recently updated its guidance on the AstraZeneca vaccine, confirming it is safe for those aged under 65.

The Health Ministry therefore now advises using the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines on people over 80 or with severe medical conditions, while offering AstraZeneca jabs sooner than expected to under-55s working in key sectors like schools or the police service.

The age group that has received the most doses so far is 50-59, followed by 40-49 and 80-89, health ministry data shows.

Vaccination programmes vary by regional health authority. You can find more information about signing up for the jab here.

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Italy’s deputy health minister under fire for questioning 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 for questioning Covid vaccines

Gemmato, a trained 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.