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HEALTH

Covid-19: Italian study revives debate over when pandemic started in Europe

Coronavirus may have been spreading in Italy as early as September 2019, a study by the National Cancer Institute (INT) in Milan suggests.

Covid-19: Italian study revives debate over when pandemic started in Europe
Researchers in Milan suggest coronavirus may have already been circulating in the region for months before February 2020. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Researchers at INT have reported that retesting of blood samples from late 2019 has again indicated the presence of antibodies normally seen after Covid infection.

The findings appear to show that the virus had spread to Europe from China months earlier than initially thought.

Italy’s – and Europe’s – first Covid-19 patient was officially identified on February 21st, 2020 in Milan’s Lombardy region, which became the epicentre of the outbreak in Europe after the first  ‘native’ cases were detected.

But the study in Milan suggests the virus may have already been circulating in the region for months before that date.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus was spreading in Italy as far back as September 2019, researchers claim

INT researchers recently retested samples after their study last November found that more than 100 people who enrolled in a lung cancer screening trial between September 2019 and March 2020 had antibodies in their blood, indicating that they had already been exposed to the virus without noticing symptoms.

A handful of people had developed antibodies as early as the first week of September 2019, the original research found.

The researchers then tested the samples again looking for coronavirus-linked antibodies, and said they had found traces of infection in three samples after discovering a type of coronavirus-linked antibody, the Financial Times reports.

“The results of this retesting suggest that what we previously reported in asymptomatic patients is a plausible signal of early circulation of the virus in Italy,” Giovanni Apolone, one of the researchers, told the Financial Times.

“If this is confirmed, this would explain the explosion of symptomatic cases observed in Italy [in 2020]. Sars-Cov-2, or an earlier version, circulated silently, under the surface,”

Italian police officers at a road checkpoint outside the town of Codogno, Lombardy, after it was declared Italy’s first coronavirus ‘red zone’ on February 23rd, 2020. Photo: Miguel Medina

The laboratory retested 29 original Italian samples, some positive and some negative.

The first known coronavirus case was in Wuhan in December 2019, but studies have since detected circulation of the virus in Europe as early as November 2019, including in Milan.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus was already in Italy by December 2019, waste water study shows

In another study, researchers at the University of Milan detected traces of the infection in skin cells from a 25-year-old woman who had a biopsy for an unusual skin condition on November 10th, 2019.

At the time the woman reported having a mild sore throat, and months later tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies in her blood.

Separately, studies of Italian waste water appear to show that the virus was circulating in December in parts of northern Italy.

At the start of the pandemic in February 2020, medical experts in Milan said they believed the virus had already been “circulating unnoticed for weeks” in Italy.

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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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