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HEALTH

When will a Covid-19 vaccine be available in Italy?

Italy is one of four European countries that have reserved millions of doses of a possible coronavirus vaccine. So when will it be available in Italy and who'll be the first to get it?

When will a Covid-19 vaccine be available in Italy?
Several Covid-19 vaccines are in development, including this one by Sinovac in China. Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

Along with Germany, France and the Netherlands, Italy has signed an agreement with pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca to guarantee the supply of 300 million doses of an experimental vaccine that the company is developing with Oxford University in the UK.

While the vaccine is still being tested, here's what we know about it so far.

How does the vaccine work?

Oxford University's vaccine is one of several in development around the world as scientists race to beat Covid-19.

Officially known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 or AZD1222, it works by targeting a spiky structure on the surface of the coronavirus called the S protein, which it uses to attach to human cells and cause an infection.


A model of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Photo: Jens Schlueter/AFP

The genetic material of the new virus's S protein is placed in a weakened version of a common cold virus from chimpanzees that has been modified to prevent it being able to replicate in humans, so that after injection copies of only the S protein (not the virus) are produced.

The idea is that the body will detect the S protein and develop an immune response, teaching the immune system to attack S proteins in future. If the new virus enters a vaccinated person's body, scientists hope the immune system would target its surface spikes, thereby helping to prevent it binding to cells and reproducing.

The vaccine has been tested on animals and a small number of humans so far, with results that were promising enough for the UK to approve a trial on as many as 10,000 volunteers. That study is currently underway, with results expected to take between two and six months, and trials are due to start in other countries around the world.

“A significant proportion of vaccines that are tested in clinical trials don't work,” warns the Oxford Vaccine Centre, which developed the vaccine with Oxford University’s Jenner Institute.

“If we are unable to show that the vaccine is protective against the virus, we would review progress, examine alternative approaches, such as using different numbers of doses, and would potentially stop the programme.”


Several other potential vaccines are being tested around the world. Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

When might the vaccine be available in Italy?

If trials show the vaccine works, regulators will still have to approve it before it can be offered to the public.

The European Medicines Agency, which reviews drugs for use within the European Union, says it will fast-track the process to green-light a successful vaccine as soon as possible. In an “optimistic” scenario, that could be at the beginning of 2021, head of vaccines Marco Cavaleri said in May.

Yet Italy's health minister has promised that the first doses will be distributed sooner. The agreement with AstraZeneca includes a batch of 60 million doses that are expected to be delivered by the end of this year, Roberto Speranza told the Corriere della Sera after the deal was signed on June 13th.

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While that timeline has not been confirmed by the developers of the vaccine, Italy hopes to benefit from the fact that Italian companies are involved in manufacturing the shot. 

Advent, a specialised manufacturer based in Pomezia near Rome, has already produced some 13,000 doses of the vaccine for use in clinical trials. And according to Speranza, another company in Anagni – also in Rome's Lazio region – will be responsible for putting the vaccine in vials.

Meanwhile as a founding member of the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance – the four-country partnership that signed the deal with AstraZeneca last weekend – Italy will be guaranteed access to any vaccine the allies choose to invest in.

Italy formed the alliance with France, Germany and the Netherlands earlier this month in order to negotiate jointly with drug developers and push to have a potential vaccine manufactured within Europe, with the goal of making it “accessible, available and affordable” everywhere in the EU.

Who would get vaccinated first?

Once a vaccine becomes available in Italy priority will be given to high-risk groups, according to Walter Ricciardi, a top scientific adviser to Italy's minister of health.

The first people to be offered the shot will include health workers, elderly people and people with conditions that make them particularly vulnerable, followed by the military and the police, Ricciardi told Repubblica.

Vaccination will gradually be extended to the rest of Italy, he said, with health services, GPs and vaccination centres mobilised to “cover the population as quickly as possible”.

How much will it cost?

Getting vaccinated against Covid-19 will be free in Italy, according to health minister Speranza, who confirmed to Corriere della Sera that the government would pay for the vaccine.

“The vaccine is the only definitive solution to Covid-19. As far as I'm concerned it will always be a global public asset, a right for everyone, not the privilege of a few,” he said in a statement.

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HEALTH

Q&A: What you need to know about Italy’s West Nile virus outbreak

As Italy records a surge in cases of West Nile fever, we look at what the disease is and where in the country it's spreading.

Q&A: What you need to know about Italy's West Nile virus outbreak

Mosquitos are unfortunately one downside of summer in Italy. But as well as being a nuisance, they may also pose a health risk in the country – one of the few in Europe to record cases of West Nile virus (WNV)

READ ALSO: Cases of West Nile fever surge in northern Italy

Last week Italy recorded 50 more cases of the mosquito-borne virus, bringing the total number of infections to 144 according to the latest report from Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS).

This marked a 53-percent increase in cases against the previous week, while ten people have died so far.

As the number of infections continues to rise, here are the answers to the most pressing questions about the disease and the outbreak in Italy.

What is it?

The West Nile Virus (WNV) is a single-stranded RNA virus that can cause West Nile fever in humans.

It’s a member of the Flavivirus family together with other endemic viruses such as the Zika and Dengue viruses.

The virus was first identified in 1937 in Uganda’s West Nile district but has since spread to many other parts of the world, to the point that it is now considered indigenous to Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. 

Carried by birds, West Nile virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes.

The West Nile virus is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes of the Culex species, which infect humans and other mammals through their bite, according to Italy’s health ministry.

There is no evidence that human-to-human transmission is possible.

Where are cases being reported in Italy?

Infections have been largely concentrated in the north of the country, especially in the Veneto region, where six people have now died of the disease. Other deaths were recorded in Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna.

The city of Padua, which is located in Veneto’s mainland, around 35 kilometres away from the Adriatic coast, is currently regarded as the hotspot of the virus. 

It isn’t yet clear why Veneto has been the worst-hit region so far, but experts fear that its marshy lowlands might be the perfect breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes. 

A mosquito of the Culex species viewed under a microscope.

Mosquitoes of the Culex species, a specimen of which is pictured above, are responsible for transmitting the West Nile Virus to humans and other mammals. Photo by Jon CHERRY Getty Images / AFP

How severe is the outbreak in Italy?

West Nile virus is not new to Italy. However, this summer has brought the highest number of cases recorded yet.

National infection levels remain relatively low but the country has by far the largest number of cases in Europe.

According to the most recent report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), dated August 3rd, 94 out of 120 recorded cases were in Italy.

Greece had 23 reported cases. Romania and Slovakia had two and one respectively. 

Italy is the only European country that has reported fatalities.

What are the symptoms?

According to the Italian Higher Health Institute (ISS), around 80 percent of infected people show no symptoms whatsoever.

In symptomatic cases, however, symptoms generally resemble those of a common flu and include fever, headaches, nausea and diarrhoea. 

The infection is usually only dangerous for people with weakened immune systems such as the elderly, and the most severe symptoms occur in fewer than one percent of infected people.

In healthy people, the virus is unlikely to cause more than a headache or sore throat, and symptoms generally last only a few days.

According to the data currently available, around one in 150 infected people can show symptoms as serious as partial vision loss, convulsions and paralysis. 

In very rare cases (around 0.1 percent, or one in 1000) the disease can cause brain infections (encephalitis or meningitis) which may eventually be fatal.

Brazilian biologists handle mosquito larvae.

There is currently no vaccine against West Nile disease, though several are being tested. Photo by Apu GOMES / AFP

Is there a cure?

There is no vaccine against West Nile fever. “Currently vaccines are being studied, but for the moment prevention consists mainly in reducing exposure to mosquito bites,” the ISS states.

There is also no specific treatment for the disease caused by the virus.

Patients showing the more serious symptoms are usually admitted to hospital and treated with IV fluids and assisted ventilation.

What should you do to protect yourself?

Seeing as there is currently no vaccine against the virus, the best way to protect oneself is by reducing exposure to mosquitoes as much as possible.

Italian health authorities have listed a number of official recommendations to help residents avoid mosquito bites. These include: 

  • Use repellent
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers when being outdoors and especially during ​​mosquitoes’ peak activity times, i.e. sunrise and sunset
  • Use mosquito nets on your windows or sleep in rooms with air-conditioning and keep the windows closed
  • Make sure there are no pools of stagnant water around your house

See more information about West Nile virus in Italy on the health ministry’s website.

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