Italian doctors say COVID-19 is losing potency. WHO say that’s not likely

Italian doctors say COVID-19 is losing potency, WHO refutes claims

Two Italian doctors said Sunday that the novel coronavirus that devastated their country has lost most of its potency and that it “clinically no longer exists in Italy.”

The country’s health minister office and officials at the World Health Organization were quick to condemn the statements, saying it’s too early to make such pronouncements.

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Doctors Alberto Zangrillo and Matteo Bassetti suggested Sunday that the level of virus they are seeing in patients is much lower than what they had recorded at the virus’s peak in the country.

"In reality," Zangrillo said, "the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy.”

Italy’s undersecretary of health was quick to warn that Zangrillo’s comments had not been backed up by any verified scientific source.

“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," Sandra Zampa said in a statement.

According to a story from Reuters, Zampa went on to caution Italians that they should continue wearing masks, washing their hands and practicing social distancing.

"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,” Zampa said, according to Reuters.

The WHO went a step further following Zangrillo’s remarks to say that, in terms of transmissibility and severity, the virus had not changed.

Zangrillo, who is the head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, Italy, said the viral load, or the level of virus in the body that he is seeing in recent patients, has dropped significantly.

“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,” he told Italian television.

Bassetti echoed Zangrillo’s findings on Sunday.

“The strength the virus had two months ago is not the same strength it has today,” said Bassetti, head of the infectious diseases clinic at the San Martino hospital in Genoa.

“It is clear that today the COVID-19 disease is different.”

During a news briefing Monday, Maria van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the technical lead on the COVID-19 virus at WHO, said the novel coronavirus continues to infect people at the same rate as when the pandemic started. Kerkhove said about 20% of those infected develop severe cases – the same rate since the virus was first identified, Reuters reported Monday.

More than 33,000 Italians have died from the virus, the third-highest death toll from COVID-19 in the world.

Michael Ryan, the executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, also disagrees with the doctors’ conclusions, saying it's unlikely COVID-19 has mutated to become a less dangerous pathogen.

"We need to be exceptionally careful not to create a sense that all of sudden the virus, by its own volition, has now decided to be less pathogenic,” Ryan said Monday. "This is still a killer virus."

Some have suggested that the virus may appear weaker because Italians who have a less severe COVID-19 infection are now able to get to be seen in what were hospitals overrun with the most severe cases of infection.

Ryan suggested that the fact that most Italians are still practicing social distancing could be the reason the virus seems less deadly.

“It may not be that the virus itself is becoming less potent,” Ryan said. “It may be that we are — as community and as a global community — successfully reducing the number, intensity and frequency of exposure to the virus, which, on the face of it, the virus then looks weaker.”