In Italy, as the number of coronavirus cases drops daily, doctors speculate that the virus is weakening and dissipating in the country.
Reuters reports Alberto Zangrillo, head of Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital, made a statement on Italian television on Sunday, “in reality, 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,” Zangrillo said.
Viral load refers to the concentration of a virus in a single sample taken from a patient. It is unclear whether or not higher viral load correlates with more severe cases of COVID-19, but studies have shown that patients suffering more severe respiratory issues had viral loads higher than those tested with mild cases.
Other Italian public health officials and the World Health Organization (WHO) are interpreting these findings and Italy’s case stats with more caution.
“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, Italian undersecretary of the health ministry, said, according to Reuters.
“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.”
Public officials in this camp emphasize that the virus remains transmittable and serious.
According to WHO, the infection rate of COVID-19 and the percentage of people who develop severe cases have not changed since the pandemic began.
“In terms of the transmissibility, that has not changed. In terms of the severity, that has not changed,” Maria van Kerkhove, technical lead at WHO, said during a press briefing on Monday.
But Matteo Basetti, a doctor who heads the San Martino Hospital’s infectious-diseases clinic in Genoa, asserts, “The strength the virus had two months ago is not the same strength it has today… it is clear that today the COVID-19 disease is different.”
In March, Italy showed an average of 6,500 confirmed new cases each day. Because the hospital system was so taxed, only the most severe cases were admitted for care and swab testing.
By the end of May, Italy’s average daily case count dropped to around 300, allowing patients exhibiting varying degrees of illness from mild to severe, to be swab tested. This change in swab test application may account for data that shows lower viral loads overall.
Michael Ryan, the executive director WHO’s Health Emergencies Program warned on Monday, “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… This is still a killer virus.”
One thing is for certain, however, WHO officials say that social distancing, quarantining and contact tracing are all measures that reduce and suppress transmission of the virus, reducing its “potency and power.”
The Italian government says it’s still too soon to claim victory over the virus, but thanks to the public heeding social distancing and safety guidelines, the country with one of the highest death tolls is headed in the right direction.