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HEALTH

Coronavirus: How much is the Delta variant spreading in Italy?

As a new study estimated that Italy ranks fifth in the world for the spread of Delta coronavirus variant, an Italian virologist has predicted that the strain is set to become 'dominant' in the country.

Coronavirus: How much is the Delta variant spreading in Italy?
Photo: Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Contrary to the Italian health authorities’ recent evaluation that the Delta variant is rare in the country, new data analysis appears to show that the strain of coronavirus first identified in India in late 2020 now actually accounts for more than a quarter of Italy’s cases.

Some 26 percent of the country’s cases can be attributed to Delta, according to an international report by the Financial Times together with data from Belgian research institute Sciensano, based on figures from the virus-variant tracking database Gisaid

That’s a stark difference from the 1 percent estimated in the latest report from the Italian national Higher Health Institute (ISS) – which also included cases known to be caused by the similar Kappa strain, likewise first detected in India.

READ ALSO: Delta variant in Italy: What’s the risk of another Covid-19 surge?

“The Delta variant of Sars-CoV-2 is set to become dominant in Italy. If what the British said is true, that it has a higher transmission index, it is clear that it has a competitive advantage and will therefore expand,” Andrea Crisanti, director of molecular medicine at the University of Padua, told news agency Adnkronos on Monay.

The report places Italy fifth in the world for the share of cases driven by the spread of Delta, coming behind the UK, where the concentration of cases is 98 percent, followed by Portugal, Russia and the US.

While the new strain still only accounts for a fraction of the total coronavirus cases in mainland Europe, “it is gaining ground”, stated the analysis.

Although having reported much more conservative figures, the ISS noted that “there has been a recent increase in the frequency and spread of such reports within the country.” 

ISS head Silvio Brusaferro stated: “Outbreaks of variants, such as Delta, with greater transmissibility and/or the potential to evade immune response have been reported in Italy as well. More vaccine coverage and completion of vaccination cycles is essential to prevent resurgence.”

So far, concern about Delta has prompted the Italian government to reinstate a mandatory quarantine and testing for travellers from the UK, amid growing concern over the strain.

Italy had already banned travel from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka due to concerns about the spread of variants.

TRAVEL: How many flights are still available between the UK and Italy?

Elsewhere in Europe, the spread of the Delta variant has prompted the British government to delay easing restrictions as planned, and France has warned that the same number of cases are being reported now as the UK did a few weeks ago.

In Spain, health experts have predicted that the Delta variant will become dominant within a month. Meanwhile in Germany, doctors are urging people to avoid travel to places particularly affected by the strain.

Delta variant ‘more transmissible’

“Based on available scientific evidence, the Delta variant is more transmissible than other circulating variants and we estimate that by the end of August it will represent 90% of all SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in the European Union,” stated Dr. Andrea Ammon, ECDC Director

“Unfortunately, preliminary data shows that it can also infect individuals that have received only one dose of the currently available vaccines. It is very likely that the Delta variant will circulate extensively during the summer, particularly among younger individuals that are not targeted for vaccination,

“This could cause a risk for the more vulnerable individuals to be infected and experience severe illness and death if they are not fully vaccinated.”

“The good news is that having received two doses of any of the currently available vaccines provides high protection against this variant and its consequences. However, about 30% of individuals older than 80 years and about 40% of individuals older than 60 years have not yet received a full vaccination course in the European Union.”

In the UK, where the first cases were recorded in February, the Delta variant has superseded the Alpha variant, first detected in Kent, England.

This itself is believed to be 43-90 percent more transmissible than early strains, according to a study by Science magazine.

Portugal and Russia are also seeing increased spread of the Delta variant, while the circulation of the Alpha strain gradually declines.

This trend hasn’t yet been recorded in Italy, the US, Belgium and Germany, where the Alpha variant still seems to be the decisively prevalent one.

The Alpha variant is still highly prevalent over the Delta variant. Source: Financial Times

Some scientists fear the Delta variant may have already spread further than the figures show, according to the FT study, but have “gone undetected given that less of the genomic sequencing needed to identify variants has been completed in mainland Europe”.

The study reported that the UK has sequenced more than 500,000 Sars-Cov-2 genomes, while Germany has sequenced 130,000, followed by France and Spain at 47,000 and 34,000 respectively. No data were given for Italy.

The reason for either vastly differing sequencing figures, or none at all, is that “it’s costly, it’s time consuming and it was neglected,” Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, told the newspaper.

Obtaining as many of the variant’s genetic sequences as possible is crucial to tracking the spread of the Delta variant, according to the scientists interviewed.

Genomic sequencing analyses a virus sample taken from a diagnosed patient and compares it with other cases, which allows tracing of outbreaks.

Looking at Gisaid data in comparison with the FT’s projections, the share of Delta cases in Italy currently stands at 7.7 percent. However, this isn’t the full picture as not all laboratories that carry out genomic sequencing share the results in real time in the international database.

Delta’s response to vaccines and impact on symptoms

The rising number of cases has caused concern that this will be a roadblock to the progress made in the EU vaccination rollout, due to how rapidly it spreads and its potential resistance to current vaccines.

According to a study by The Lancet, the Delta variant is responsible for roughly double the risk of hospitalisation compared with the Alpha variant. The findings were based on hospitalisations reported in Scotland over two months.

READ ALSO: EU and AstraZeneca both claim victory after Covid vaccine judgement

After one dose of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine, there is a much lower level of protection against the Delta variant, according to research – just 33 percent for in the case of Pfizer.

However, the latest data from Public Health England suggests that vaccines are more effective against the most serious consequences of the new strain.

The Pfizer vaccine was found to be 96 percent effective against hospitalisation from the Delta variant after two doses, while AstraZeneca’s offered 92 protection. From the first dose, Pfizer was found to be 94 percent effective and AstraZeneca offered 71 percent protection after one shot.

Studies have also found that symptoms from the Delta variant are different, with the most common symptoms reported including headache, followed by a sore throat, runny nose and fever, according to the Covid Symptom Study.

Certain symptoms, such as coughing and loss of smell or taste have almost disappeared, it found.

Member comments

  1. Why doesn’t anybody ever talk about how dangerous the Delta variant is? We hear it spreads more easily but not if it is putting people in hospital more frequently. So Delta is “more widespread” than we even know but deaths and hospitalizations are still going down. Why use fear of Delta to keep travel restrictions in place?

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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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