Italian doctors have claimed that the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) — which has killed more than 370,000 worldwide — has weakened and become a shadow of its former self. The pronouncement comes after a number of weeks where infections and deaths from COVID-19 in Italy have continued to fall.
Italy currently has 233,197 infections and 33,475 deaths from the coronavirus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. For a time, the country was considered the epicenter of the ongoing pandemic in Europe. However, Italian medics are now saying that the virus is much less lethal than it was back then. (Related: Coronavirus loosens grip on Italy: Cases plunge to lowest since March, nationwide lockdown enters fifth week.)
Tests show new cases in Italy have lower viral loads
“The swabs that were performed over the last 10 days showed a viral load in quantitative terms that was absolutely infinitesimal compared to the ones carried out a month or two months ago,” Zangrillo told RAI Television.
A second doctor in northern Italy, where the country was hit hardest, also stated that he was seeing the coronavirus weaken to the national ANSA news agency. For Mario Bassetti, head of the infectious diseases clinic at Genoa’s San Martino Hospital, the current virulence of the virus is far weaker compared to two months ago.
“It is clear that today the COVID-19 disease is different,” he added.
Other public health authorities in Italy and in the World Health Organization (WHO) have raised doubts about Zangrillo’s statements.
“Pending scientific evidence to support the thesis that the virus has disappeared … I would invite those who say they are sure of it not to confuse Italians,” stated Sandra Zampa, an undersecretary at the Ministry of Health.
“We should instead invite Italians to maintain the maximum caution, maintain physical distancing, avoid large groups, to frequently wash their hands and to wear masks,” she added.
Meanwhile, Maria van Kerkhove, the technical lead at WHO, stated that the coronavirus continues to infect people at the same rate as when the pandemic stated. She also mentioned that the same proportion of people who get infected — about 20 percent — develop severe illness.
Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program also stated that it’s unlikely that the coronavirus mutated to become less dangerous.
“This is still a killer virus,” Ryan said Monday.
Alternate explanation for the observations exists
An alternative explanation could exist for Zangrillo’s observation that Italian patients today have lower viral loads than those from two months ago.
Viral load refers to how much of a virus is found in a sample taken from a patient. Two studies published in the journal The Lancet suggest that, on average, patients who developed more severe symptoms of COVID-19 had higher viral loads when they were admitted compared to people with mild cases.
“In a situation where the numbers of severe cases are falling, there may be time to start observing people with less severe symptoms — giving the impression that the virus is changing,” Martin Hibberd, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said to Italian news site The Local.
During the height of the pandemic in March, Italy’s average number of new daily cases hovered at about 6,500. With the strain that this put on the country’s healthcare system, only patients with the most severe cases — and most likely the highest viral load — were admitted to hospitals.
By the end of May, however, the country only averaged about 300 new cases a day. This meant that even those with milder cases were able to seek care. This could explain why the viral loads in swab tests taken recently were lower.
Learn more about the coronavirus over at Pandemic.news.
TheLancet.com 1 [PDF]
TheLancet.com 2 [PDF]