Italian prime minister gets AstraZeneca vaccine

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi received his first dose of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine on Tuesday, his office said, in an announcement intended to show support for the jab.

Italian prime minister gets AstraZeneca vaccine
Prime Minister Mario Draghi visits a vaccination hub earlier this month. Photo: GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE / POOL / AFP

The PM and his wife, Maria Serenella Cappello, got their jabs at a pop-up vaccination centre at Rome’s central Termini station, a spokesman said.

Draghi and Cappello, both 73, were eligible for vaccination by age group in the Lazio region, which extended the campaign to people in their 70s earlier this month and is now vaccinating people in their late 60s and up.

Italy paused use of the AstraZeneca/Oxford jabs for several days earlier this month following fears of a link to blot clots, before the European Medicines Agency gave the all-clear.

The World Health Organization has also said the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe to use.

Draghi, who took office last month, has promised to ramp up the number of vaccinations in Italy, which was the first European country to face the full force of the pandemic and is currently battling a third wave.

READ ALSO: Johnson & Johnson vaccine expected to arrive in Italy in mid-April

Another 3 million doses are due to be delivered to Italy “by the end of the month“, according to Covid-19 emergency commissioner Francesco Paolo Figliuolo, while the single-shot Johnson & Johnson is expected to arrive from April 19th.

Most of Italy remains under tight restrictions, although schools and nurseries reopened in the Lazio region surrounding Rome on Tuesday for the first time in two weeks, after it was reclassified from a “red zone” to a lower-risk “orange zone”.

The whole country will be put under a “red zone” lockdown over the long Easter weekend from April 3rd to 5th in a bid to limit  new cases of Covid-19.

More than 108,000 people have died of the coronavirus so far in Italy, according to the official health ministry toll, while just over 3 million have been fully vaccinated.


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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.