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Covid-19: Italian PM pledges to stop ‘queue jumpers’ and speed up vaccines for over-75s

Italy's failure to target coronavirus vaccinations at the most vulnerable has cost thousands of lives, an expert warned Friday after Prime Minister Mario Draghi lashed out at "queue jumpers".

Covid-19: Italian PM pledges to stop 'queue jumpers' and speed up vaccines for over-75s
People wait for the AstraZeneca vaccine at a hub in Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

After being among the worst-hit countries by the pandemic last year, Italy began its vaccine campaign in late December but failed to focus exclusively on the most at-risk groups – the elderly.

Had it stuck more rigidly to the “ideal” plan of vaccinating older people, Italy would have suffered 8,000 fewer coronavirus deaths, according to expert Matteo Villa.

Villa, a researcher from the ISPI think-tank in Milan, said 33,000 people have died since early January. With more targeted jabs, “it could have been 25,000,” he said.

“An unbalanced strategy, the delays of the regions and vaccine cheats have brought us here,” he said on Friday.

IN CHARTS: Who is being vaccinated in Italy?

At a news conference late Thursday, Draghi warned regional governments they must improve vaccine efforts if they want to see current restrictive measures lifted, and attacked those taking jabs who were not in priority groups.

Draghi asked “in what conscience” people not eligible for the vaccine were “skipping the waiting list, trying to get vaccinated earlier, even knowing that, in this way, those over 65 or frail are left exposed to a real risk of death?”

His comments came as Italian media reported that up to 30 percent of vaccines in some regions appeared to have been incorrectly given to people who were not in priority groups.

Investigators concerned about mafia infiltration have ordered four regions –  Sicily, Calabria, Campania and Valle D’Aosta – to turn over vaccination data and explain how they prioritised jabs.

Government data shows Italy has administered a total of 12 million vaccinations to date, with 4.2 million to those aged 80 and above and only 1.26 million to those in their 70s.

Meanwhile, 3.1 million have supposedly gone to health workers, a million to educational professionals – and 2.4 million to a hazy category defined as “others”.

In the regon of Puglia, thousands of the people classed as medical workers when being vaccinated were found to have no connection with the health service, the head of the region’s medical inspection unit told the Financial Times.

“We cross referenced the data with social security information and found there were many people getting doses with no right to them: friends of friends, associates, parents,” he said.

Italy’s national vaccination plan has already been criticised for allowing younger, healthier people to be vaccinated while more vulnerable older groups have been vaccinated in relatively low numbers.

Draghi on Thursday said this had to change: “The risk of death is highest for those over 75 years of age, so the elderly must be vaccinated as a matter of priority,” Draghi said.

Draghi said his government’s coronavirus emergency commissioner would now instruct regional health authorities to “stop vaccinating those under 60, young people, psychologists that are 35 years old”.

Under the previous government, Italy had initially prioritised healthcare workers and teachers as well as over-80s in the early phase of its vaccine roll-out. The aim of this plan was to protect front-line workers.

Meanwhile, some regional healthcare systems had more controversially prioritised vaccinating other groups of professionals first, including lawyers and journalists.

Academic researchers, many aged under 40 and working from home, have also been given vaccines as a priority.

Younger adults working in certain professions were initially given the vaccine when Italy was restricting the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on older age groups – first saying it should not be used on over 55s, then over 65s. 

EXPLAINED: Why has Italy recommended the AstraZeneca vaccine for over-60s only?

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In the latest change to the medical advice however, Italy is now recommending the AstraZeneca vaccine be used on over-60s only.

Emergency commissioner General Francesco Paolo Figliuolo on Thursday stated: “From today, the inoculation of the AstraZeneca vaccine is open to the 60-79 year old group, while those under 60 who have already received the first dose will also receive the second.”

He stressed that he would not revise Italy’s target of administering half a million doses daily by the end of April, despite the current average number of daily doses being around 240,000.

The prime minister meanwhile insisted on Thursday that: “The April doses are sufficient to vaccinate the entire population over eighty and most of the over 75”.

READ ALSO: Why is Italy’s coronavirus vaccine plan missing its targets?

After Draghi’s government last updated the list of priority groups, the number of vaccine doses going to the over-70s had already increased at the start of April to six out of every ten shots administered.

However, 43 per cent of Italians aged 80 or over are still waiting for a first vaccine dose, the most recent available health ministry data shows, and 88 per cent of those aged 70-79 have not had their first dose.

The number of people in the 30-39 age group who have received a jab is currently similar to the number in their 70s.

There have also been major disparities across the country in the number of vaccines administered to the over-80s, in part due to the fact that each region manages its own health service and can set its own vaccination schedule.

IN CHARTS: Which regions of Italy are vaccinating people fastest?

The percentage of people over 80 who have been fully vaccinated ranges from almost 60 percent in South Tyrol to 14 percent in Sardinia, according to data analysis by the GIMBE independent evidence-based medicine foundation.

While Italy’s vaccine campaign is progressing similarly to those in other EU member states, the slower-than-hoped pace of the vaccine rollout is causing high levels of frustration in the country, as the death toll remains high, and is rising more sharply than in other major European countries.

Meanwhile, lockdown restrictions have been extended until at least the end of April and the government is not able to commit to reopening dates for the tourism sector and other businesses hit hard by the crisis and ongoing closures.

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MONKEYPOX

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.

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