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COVID-19 RULES

‘Get vaccinated’: Italian virologists urge caution over Omicron Covid variant

High-profile health experts in Italy said the new Covid-19 variant is likely to be more contagious, but stressed that further studies are needed.

People queue for Covid testing at Rome's Fiumicino airport.
People queue for Covid testing at Rome's Fiumicino airport. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Italy has confirmed one case of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19, which was first detected in South Africa.

The UK, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and the Czech Republic have also reported cases of the variant. In the Netherlands, 13 travellers were found to be infected with Omicron.

READ ALSO: Italy bans arrivals from southern Africa over new Covid variant

Italian virologist Roberto Burioni said on Sunday night that that “there is a possibility that this new variant is more contagious but we cannot say so with absolute certainty.”.

“I understand that people are tired, that you want certain answers, but right now you have to be patient,” said Burioni. “We have no confirmed data, we have to wait to find out more in the next few weeks.”

“In this war we have a very effective weapon: let’s be careful and let’s get vaccinated,” he urged.

Franco Locatelli, the president of Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS) and the coordinator of the CTS panel of experts advising the government on health measures, said on Monday that, while the Omicron variant seems to be more contagious there is no evidence yet that that it is more dangerous.

Locatelli told SkyTG24 news that it would be “excessive” to say he was worried about the new strain.

“We know that this is a variant that has had a significant spread in South Africa,” he said. “The time it took to become predominant was much less with respect to other variants.”

“This all supports (the hypothesis) that it is more contagious. But we don’t have any evidence that it can provoke more serious illness or avoid the protective effect of vaccines in a major way”.

READ ALSO: Italy confirms first case of new Covid Omicron variant

Omicron has many more mutations than the Delta strain, according to a first “image” of this new variant initially detected in South Africa, produced and published by the Rome’s prestigious Bambino Gesu hospital.

On the three-dimensional “image”, which looks like a map, “we can clearly see that the Omicron variant presents many more mutations than the Delta variant, concentrated above all in one area of the protein that interacts with human cells”, the team of researchers said in a statement published on Sunday.

Photo: ANSA/AFP
 

“This does not automatically mean that these variations are more dangerous, just that the virus has further adapted to the human species by generating another variant,” the researchers said.

“Other studies will tell us if this adaptation is neutral, less dangerous or more dangerous,” they added.

The research team focused on the search for mutations in “the three-dimensional structure of the spike protein”, Claudia Alteri, professor of clinical microbiology at Milan State University and a researcher at Bambino Gesu, told AFP.

The image was produced “from the study of the sequences of this new variant made available to the scientific community” coming mainly “from Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong”.

“This image, which represents a map of all the variations, describes the mutations of Omicron but does not define its role,” she said. “It will now be important to define through laboratory experiments whether the combination of these mutations can have an impact on transmission or on the effectiveness of vaccines, for example,” she added.

The new Covid-19 Omicron variant poses a “very high” risk globally, the World Health Organization warned on Monday, stressing that uncertainties remained about how contagious and dangerous the strain was.

“If another major surge of Covid-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe,” WHO said in a technical note, adding though that “to date, no deaths linked to Omicron variant have been reported.”

EU health authorities have said the new strain poses a “high to very high risk” to the continent.

Countries including Italy as well as Germany and the UK have brought in travel restrictions in a bid to contain the spread of the variant. 

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COVID-19 RULES

Italy allows suspended anti-vax doctors to return to work

Italian heathcare staff suspended over their refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19 can now return to work, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni confirmed on Monday.

Italy allows suspended anti-vax doctors to return to work

Italy become 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.

That obligation had been set to expire in December, but was brought forward to Tuesday due to “a shortage of medical and health personnel”, Health Minister Orazio Schillaci said.

READ ALSO: Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

Italy was the first European country to be hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, and has since registered nearly 180,000 deaths.

Schillaci first announced the plan to scrap the rule on Friday in a statement saying data showed the virus’ impact on hospitals  “is now limited”.

Those who refuse vaccination will be “reintegrated” into the workforce before the rule expires at the end of this year, as part of what the minister called a “gradual return to normality”.

Meloni said the move, which has been criticised by the centre-left as a win for anti-vax campaigners, would mean some 4,000 healthcare workers can return to work.

This includes some 1,579 doctors and dentists refusing vaccination, according to records at the end of October, representing 0.3 percent of all those registered with Italy’s National Federation of the Orders of Physicians, Surgeons and Dentists (Fnomceo) 

Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party railed against the way Mario Draghi’s government handled the pandemic, when it was the main opposition party, and she promised to use her first cabinet meetings to mark a clear break in policies with her predecessor.

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