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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

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.”

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