Italy asks regions to track new Covid Omicron variant as EU detects cases

Italy's health authorities have issued instructions to all regions to monitor travellers coming from countries where the Omicron variant is spreading.

Italy asks regions to track new Covid Omicron variant as EU detects cases
Italy has relaxed its Covid restrictions for international travellers, opening up tourism. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

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”.

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“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.


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.

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Will Italy drop its Covid isolation rule as the infection rate falls?

The health ministry is reviewing its quarantine requirements as the country's Covid-19 health situation improved again this week, according to Italian media reports.

Will Italy drop its Covid isolation rule as the infection rate falls?

Italy has taken a more cautious approach to Covid in recent months than many of its European neighbours, keeping strict isolation rules in place for anyone who tests positive for the virus.

But this could be set to change in the coming days, according to media reports, as one of Italy’s deputy health ministers said the government is about to cut the isolation period for asymptomatic cases.

“Certainly in the next few days there will be a reduction in isolation for those who are positive but have no symptoms,” Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa said in a TV interview on the political talk show Agorà on Tuesday.

“We have to manage to live with the virus,” he said.

Italy’s La Stampa newspaper reported that the compulsory isolation period could be reduced to 48 hours for those who test positive but remain asymptomatic – provided they subsequently test negative after the day two mark.

Under Italy’s current rules, vaccinated people who test positive must stay in isolation for at least seven days, and unvaccinated people for ten days – regardless of whether or not they have any symptoms.

READ ALSO: How tourists and visitors can get a coronavirus test in Italy

At the end of the isolation period, the patient has to take another test to exit quarantine. Those who test negative are free to leave; those who remain positive must stay in isolation until they get a negative test result, up to a maximum of 21 days in total (at which point it doesn’t matter what the test result says).

Health ministry sources indicated the new rules would cut the maximum quarantine period to 15 or even 10 days for people who continue to test positive after the initial isolation period is up, La Stampa said.

The government is believed to be reviewing the rules as the latest official data showed Covid infection and hospitalisation rates were slowing again this week, as the current wave of contagions appeared to have peaked in mid-July.

However, the national Rt number (which shows the rate of transmission) remained above the epidemic threshold, and the number of fatalities continued to rise.

The proposed changes still aren’t lenient enough for some parties. Regional authorities have been pushing for an end to quarantine altogether, even for people who are actively positive – an idea Costa appears sympathetic to.

“The next step I think is to consider the idea of even eliminating the quarantine, perhaps by wearing a mask and therefore being able to go to work,” he told reporters.

“We must review the criteria for isolation, to avoid blocking the country again”.

At least one health expert, however, was unenthusiastic about the proposal.

Dr Nino Cartabellotta, head of Italy’s evidence-based medicine group Gimbe, tweeted on Tuesday: “There are currently no epidemiological or public health reasons to abolish the isolation of Covid-19 positives”

Massimo Andreoni, professor of Infectious Diseases at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the Tor Vergata University of Rome, was more ambivalent about the prospect.

The isolation requirement for asymptomatic cases should be “revised somewhat in the light of the epidemiological data”, he told reporters, but urged “a minimum of precaution, because the less the virus circulates and the fewer severe cases there are, the fewer new variants arise”.

When the question was last raised at the end of June, Health Minister Roberto Speranza was firmly against the idea of lifting quarantine requirements for people who were Covid positive.

“At the moment such a thing is not in question,” he told newspaper La Repubblica at the time. “Anyone who is infected must stay at home.”