Following a ban on entry to those who have been in southern Africa in the past fortnight, Italy’s Ministry of Health has called on all regions to trace people who have already arrived in Italy from this area.
In light of the new Covid variant that’s been classified as a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Italy’s director of prevention Giovanni Rezza authorised the plans in a circular “as a precautionary measure”.
“It is feared that the high number of mutations in the spike protein may lead to a significant change in the antigenic properties of the virus,” writes Gianni Rezza to the regions on the Omicron variant.
“But so far no virological characterisation has been carried out and there is no evidence of changes in transmissibility, severity of infection, or potential evasion of the immune response,” he added.
In the case of outbreaks, whereby there’s a rapid and abnormal increase in cases, authorities recommend applying the same quarantine and isolation measures as is currently the case for the variants prevalent in Italy, namely the Delta and Beta strains.
The EU health agency, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), said on Friday that the new variant poses a “high to very high” risk to Europe.
It noted in a threat assessment report that there was still “considerable uncertainty related to the transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness, risk for reinfections and other properties of the Omicron variant.”
Without knowing how current vaccines would protect against the new variant, the EU health officials stated, “We assess the probability of further introduction and community spread in the EU/EEA as high.”
“In a situation where the Delta variant is resurgent in the EU/EEA, the impact of the introduction and possible further spread of Omicron could be very high,” they added.
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So far, apart from South Africa, Omicron has been detected in Israel in a person coming from Malawi as well as in Botswana and Hong Kong.
As for the EU, a case of the new variant was identified in Belgium in a young woman who developed symptoms 11 days after travelling to Egypt via Turkey, noted the Italian health authorities.
Italy’s ban on arrivals applies to South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Swaziland.
Health Minister Roberto Speranza said scientists were studying the new B.1.1.529 variant, “and in the meantime, we will follow the path of maximum caution”.
The current health situation in Italy
The Covid-19 contagion curve in Italy has been rising in recent weeks as the country battles a fourth wave of coronavirus infections.
In a bid to keep the spread under control, the country will see tightened health measures next month following the government’s updated rules.
This includes incentivising vaccine uptake by increasing restrictions for those who have yet to get the vaccine with the so-called ‘Super green pass’.
The country’s Covid-19 green pass health certificate will no longer allow access to “non-essential” services including leisure and cultural venues unless the bearer is vaccinated against or recovered from Covid-19.
In addition, some regions are set to see a return to ‘yellow zones’ under Italy’s four-tier system for coronavirus restrictions: ‘orange’ zones operate under a higher level of restrictions than yellow zones and ‘red’ zones are subject to the strictest requirements.