EXPLAINED: When and how will Italy offer a fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose?

As Italy's health minister indicated that a fourth shot of a Covid-19 vaccine may be made available later this year, here's what we know about the plan so far.

EXPLAINED: When and how will Italy offer a fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose?
Italy’s health authorities say they will consider whether a top-up dose of a Covid-19 vaccine should be offered to everyone later this year. Photo: Andreas SOLARO / AFP

Health Minister Roberto Speranza on Sunday said top-up shots of a Covid-19 vaccine for the general population are “probable” later in the year, as the national drugs regulator gave the green light to fourth doses for the immunocompromised.

“We will have to evaluate [fourth doses] for everyone after the summer,” Speranza said in an interview with newspaper Repubblica. “It is to be considered probable, because the virus won’t shake hands and leave forever, unfortunately,”

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

He added that 2022 “is the crucial year in which to understand if we will return to a fully normal life.”

“I’m optimistic, but the game is not over. In a few months part of the world will enter autumn: by observing them, we will understand what awaits us.”

Speranza’s comments came as the health ministry confirmed in an ordinance on Sunday that a fourth dose of a Covid vaccine can be administered to immunocompromised people, following approval from Aifa.

A fourth shot for those with compromised immune systems will be made available starting in March for those who had their last dose at least 120 days previously.

Earlier in February, Aifa director Nicola Magrini ruled out offering second booster doses to the general population in the coming months, saying a top-up jab may be offered instead.

“There won’t be a fourth dose, but a follow-up, hopefully annually,” Magrini said in an interview broadcast on the RaiTre television channel.

On Monday, Walter Ricciardi, professor of hygiene at Rome’s Catholic University and an advisor to the health minister, told La Stampa that it is “likely” another booster “will be useful for everyone” by autumn.

Ricciardi stressed that certain health measures should be kept in place even if the government ends the current state of emergency on March 31st as expected.

“The state of emergency may end, but with the foresight to keep in place the pillars that support our current freedoms,” Ricciardi said.

He said existing rules on vaccination, boosters, the Italian ‘green pass’ health certificate and on wearing masks indoors “must remain in place.”

The Italian government is currently evaluating when and how to proceed with relaxing nationwide health measures after Prime Minister Mario Draghi promised in early February that a “timeline” for relaxing the rules would soon be announced.

So far, few changes to the current restrictions have been confirmed, with parliament set to examine proposals later this week.

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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.