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HEALTH

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

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.

Italy to step up test-and-trace and sequencing as concern grows about Delta virus variant
Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

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.

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

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.”

Member comments

  1. 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?

    1. 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.

      1. So, in other words it’s a non-issue. Covid was dangerous for the people who are now protected. Why are we using delta to continue with restrictions? Remember the regular old flu when people lived like normal in the before times? Yeah that was as, if not more, dangerous to young people as covid is. We need to be basing our decisions not on if covid is eradicated but on how many people are actually dying from it because it isn’t like there are no repercussions from restrictions. Being masked and isolated is not good for the immune system at all for one thing, let alone everybody’s mental health. It’s over folks. Time to go back to normal.

        1. I don’t think for one minute that it’s a non-issue just because deaths are fewer. Many younger people report long-lasting serious symptoms after having Covid (the so-called ‘Long Covid’), and there seems to be little to no treatment for these. Flu isn’t more dangerous to young healthy people and never has been – when we get winter flu surges, the hospitals are full of the elderly frail, not 20 to 40-year-olds. In addition, other countries are still in the midst of the worst of the pandemic.

          For Italy at least, we’ve opened up again and mask use won’t be necessary outside from Monday. I don’t think there’s any need for people to be isolated if they don’t want to be. Covid’s definitely not over and it never will be, sadly (it will always be with us) – but we will have to live with it.

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COVID-19 VACCINES

Italy’s constitutional court upholds Covid vaccine mandate as fines kick in

Judges on Thursday dismissed legal challenges to Italy's vaccine mandate as "inadmissible” and “unfounded”, as 1.9 million people face fines for refusing the jab.

Italy's constitutional court upholds Covid vaccine mandate as fines kick in

Judges were asked this week to determine whether or not vaccine mandates introduced by the previous government during the pandemic – which applied to healthcare and school staff as well as over-50s – breached the fundamental rights set out by Italy’s constitution.

Italy became the first country in Europe to make it obligatory for healthcare workers to be vaccinated, ruling in 2021 that they must have the jab or be transferred to other roles or suspended without pay.

The Constitutional Court upheld the law in a ruling published on Thursday, saying it considered the government’s requirement for healthcare personnel to be vaccinated during the pandemic period neither unreasonable nor disproportionate.

Judges ruled other questions around the issue as inadmissible “for procedural reasons”, according to a court statement published on Thursday.

This was the first time the Italian Constitutional Court had ruled on the issue, after several regional courts previously dismissed challenges to the vaccine obligation on constitutional grounds.

A patient being administered a Covid jab.

Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP

One Lazio regional administrative court ruled in March 2022 that the question of constitutional compatibility was “manifestly unfounded”.

Such appeals usually centre on the question of whether the vaccine requirement can be justified in order to protect the ‘right to health’ as enshrined in the Italian Constitution.

READ ALSO: Italy allows suspended anti-vax doctors to return to work

Meanwhile, fines kicked in from Thursday, December 1st, for almost two million people in Italy who were required to get vaccinated under the mandate but refused.

This includes teachers, law enforcement and healthcare workers, and the over 50s, who face fines of 100 euros each under rules introduced in 2021.

Thursday was the deadline to justify non-compliance with the vaccination mandate due to health reasons, such as having contracted Covid during that period.

Italy’s health minister on Friday however appeared to suggest that the new government may choose not to enforce the fines.

“It could cost more for the state to collect the fines” than the resulting income, Health Minister Orazio Schillaci told Radio Rai 1.

He went on to say that it was a matter for the Economy and Finance Ministry, but suggested that the government was drawing up an amendment to the existing law.

READ ALSO: Covid vaccines halved Italy’s death toll, study finds

The League, one of the parties which comprises the new hard-right government, is pushing for fines for over-50s to be postponed until June 30th 2023.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni had promised a clear break with her predecessor’s health policies, after her Brothers of Italy party railed against the way Mario Draghi’s government handled the pandemic in 2021 when it was in opposition.

At the end of October, shortly after taking office, the new government allowed doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to return to work earlier than planned after being suspended for refusing the Covid vaccine.

There has been uncertainty about the new government’s stance after the deputy health minister in November cast doubt on the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, saying he was “not for or against” vaccination.

Italy’s health ministry continues to advise people in at-risk groups to get a booster jab this winter, and this week stressed in social media posts that vaccination against Covid-19 and seasonal flu remained “the most effective way to protect ourselves and our loved ones, especially the elderly and frail”.

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