Advertisement

Italy to step up test-and-trace and sequencing as concern grows about Delta virus variant

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Italy to step up test-and-trace and sequencing as concern grows about Delta virus variant
A nurse collects a swab sample from a passenger to perform a Covid-19 Rapid Antigen Test before embarking of the Costa Smeralda cruise liner docked in Savona, near Genoa on May 1, 2021. - Italian cruise line Costa Cruises set sail on May 1, 2021, for the first time in more than four months, buoying an industry capsized by the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP)

The Italian health ministry on Friday told local authorities to increase their coronavirus variant sequencing and tracing efforts, as new data confirmed that the Delta strain is spreading in Italy.

Advertisement

The ministry sent out the instruction in a circular after the Higher Health Institute (ISS) released new figures on Friday showing that the number of infections in Italy caused by the Delta and Kappa variants have increased by 16.8 percent in June.

“From our epidemiological surveillance, a rapidly evolving picture emerges that confirms that also in our country, as in the rest of Europe, the Delta variant of the virus is becoming prevalent,” said Anna Teresa Palamara, director of ISS’s infectious diseases department.

READ ALSO: Italian health experts warn about Delta variant as vaccine progress slows

According to ISS data published on Friday, the SARS-CoV-2 variant prevalent in Italy was found to be the Alpha variant (B.1.1.7), responsible for 74.9 of cases. This is now also the most prevalent globally.

Cases associated with Kappa and Delta variants (B.1.617.1/2) “are few overall in January to June”, the ISS report added. But it stated that the frequency and spread of these reports has "rapidly" increased across the country.

The new ISS figure  still lower than those from independent analysis of data from the virus-variant tracking database Gisaid, which estimated on Thursday that Delta now accounts for as much as 32 percent of recently confirmed new cases.

Advertisement

Several regions have already reported clusters of the Delta variant, though the amount of test result sequencing and analysis carried out by local health authorities in Italy varies and is often low.

Each region currently volunteers to do a certain number genetic sequencing of positive swabs, which means that Italy has less data available about the spread of variants than countries where sequencing is more widespread and systematic, such as the UK or Denmark.

The region of Puglia on Friday confirmed it would begin sending 60 test results per week for further analysis following the health ministry's instruction.

Italian authorities had largely dismissed the risks posed by Delta in Italy until recently, describing its presence as “rare” in the country in the official data monitoring report released on June 11th.

Health officials had said at the end of May that they believed vaccinations would be enough to mitigate the risks.

But Italy's government is now re-evaluating its approach following criticism of its response so far in a report published on Thursday by independent health watchdog GIMBE.

“A ‘wait-and-see’ strategy on managing the Delta variant is unacceptable,” wrote GIMBE head Dr. Nino Cartabellotta.

MAP: Where is the Delta variant spreading in Italy?

Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

Advertisement

The report described Italy’s current levels of full vaccination coverage as “worrying” considering “the lower effectiveness of a single dose against this variant “.

At the moment, just over a quarter of the Italian population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, compared to 46% in the United Kingdom.

The report pointed out that some 2.5 million people aged over 60 in Italy have not yet received the first dose of a vaccine.

The foundation urged the government to "properly implement" measures recommended by the ECDC in its report published earlier this week: "enhance sequencing and contact tracing, implement screening strategies for those arriving from abroad, and accelerate the administration of the second dose in over 60s".

Cartabellotta said: “You can’t control the Covid pandemic only with vaccines, masks and distancing. Today the Delta variant requires tracing and sequencing”.

Amid rising concern about the impact of the variant, which is thought to increase the risk of hospitalisation, Italian health authorities on Monday imposed new travel restrictions on arrivals from the UK – almost a month after other EU countries including France and Germany did the same.

Despite concerns about the spread of Delta, Italian health authorities on Friday also confirmed that all regions of Italy would be allowed to ease the health measures further from Monday, June 28th, as the number of infections recorded remained low this week.

READ ALSO: Italy to drop outdoor mask-wearing rule from June 28th

The last region still classed as a 'yellow' zone, Valle d'Aosta, will join the rest of the country in the low-risk 'white' tier, meaning most rules can be relaxed.

"With the decree I just signed, all of Italy will be 'white' starting from Monday. It is an encouraging result, but we still need caution and prudence," Speranza
wrote on Facebook.

Referring to the spread of more transmissible variants of the coronavirus, the minister added: "the battle has not yet been won."

More

Comments (1)

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

Anonymous 2021/06/25 19:55
My question is, if delta is more widespread in Italy than previously thought, and is most likely increasing, why are hospitalizations and deaths consistently going down? I keep hearing the delta is more dangerous and scary and everything but why aren't deaths going up?
  • Anonymous 2021/06/26 09:04
    The UK shows that you can have an extremely high case rate of people infected with the Delta variant, but maintain a very low death rate. This is because the age groups mostly being infected now are far younger, fitter people than those most affected at the beginning of the pandemic. Young people will generally be out and about more, both at work and socially and so have a greater chance of catching the highly-transmissible Delta variant, particularly if they have yet to be vaccinated. Younger people may become infected, but in most cases will recover without the need for hospitalisation and with very few deaths. Vaccination commenced with the very old and very frail and has worked its way down the age groups, which means older people with co-morbidities who are more at risk of hospitalisation and death are far less likely to become infected, as they are now fully-vaccinated. The Delta variant is more transmissible, but not apparently more dangerous. It demonstrates the massive importance of pushing on at speed with the vaccination programme, that's for sure.

See Also