Italian Doctor Says Coronavirus Is Becoming Less Potent — but International Experts Disagree

A top doctor in Italy believes that the new coronavirus, COVID-19, is losing its potency and becoming less viral — but his comments led to an outcry from international experts who disagree with the idea.

On Sunday, Alberto Zangrillo, the head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, located in the region of Italy hardest hit by the virus, said that “the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy.”

“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 RAI television, Reuters reported.

After hitting a peak in COVID-19 cases in March and going into a strict lockdown, Italy has seen its number of daily cases and deaths slow significantly. At the peak, around 4,000 to 5,000 Italians were diagnosed with the virus each day. That number is now down to around 300.

The country’s health department, though, pushed back on Zangrillo’s comments and said that it was too soon to know if the virus has changed.

“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, an undersecretary at the health ministry, said in a statement, Reuters reported. “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.”

And on Monday, a top official at the World Health Organization, Michael Ryan, refuted the idea that the virus is lessening.

“We need to be exceptionally careful not to create a sense that all of a sudden the virus by its own volition has now decided to be less pathogenic. That is not the case at all,” Ryan said during an online briefing, The Washington Post reported.

The lessened viral loads that Zangrillo is seeing may be because the virus is not circulating as frequently with people in quarantine, and more widely available testing means that they are seeing more people with milder or asymptomatic cases of the virus, experts say. That doesn’t mean, though, that the virus cannot be severe or life-threatening for other people.

“I believe it’s safe to say that the differences that doctors are reporting in Italy are entirely due to changes to medical treatment and in human behavior, which limit transmission and numbers of new infections initiated by large inocula — a larger dose of virus appears to be worse — rather than changes in the virus itself,” Vaughn Cooper, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told the Post.

And while viruses do mutate and change, COVID-19 changes more slowly than the flu, for example, he said.

In the U.S., new cases of COVID-19 are down significantly from the outbreak’s peak in late April, but cases are rising in several spots, particularly in Alabama, Texas, California, North Carolina and South Carolina.

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