One year after first coronavirus death in Italy, health experts focus on lessons learned

A year ago, the first COVID-19-related death was announced in Italy, followed by nearly 100,000 more thereafter, as well as the most turbulent 12 months in Italy since the end of World War II.

The following weeks after the first reported death saw Europe’s first regional peacetime lockdown in early March 2020 before its first national lockdown a few days later. Almost every day brought a grim new record for infections and deaths until the curves of new infections and deaths started to be flattened last May.

Two months after the first deaths were reported, the death toll surpassed 25,000 on April 22, 2020. A year later, the total death toll was just under 96,000, according to data from the Ministry of Health.

People have learned a great deal, even though not enough, since the early days of the pandemic, according to experts and analysts.

“We have learned what works in stopping the spread of the virus,” Giovanni Maga, head of the DNA Enzymology and Molecular Virology Section of the Institute of Molecular Genetics IGM-CNR at Italy’s National Research Council, told Xinhua.

“Many of the strategies we recommended at the start, like the use of rubber gloves, for example, are no longer recommended because frequent handwashing works better,” said Maga, also a professor of molecular biology at the University of Pavia.

“We’ve gotten better at diagnosing cases and at effectively taking care of those who become ill, less than a year after the virus first appeared. We have effective vaccines against it. These are all positive signs,” he said.

Scientific communications expert Giorgio Sestili, however, said that Italy, Europe, and the United States could have learned more from the success in curbing the spread of the virus in other parts of the world.

“We have learned a lot, but we have not been able to shut the virus down as was the case in many parts of the world including China and other parts of Asia,” he said.

Some studies in Italy have turned up clues that the virus may have appeared in Italy weeks or months earlier than the official record showed.

In January, for example, it was revealed that a skin biopsy taken at the University of Milan showed the presence of the virus in Italy in November 2019. In December 2020, the same university discovered coronavirus antibodies existed in a four-year-old measles patient also in November 2019. Four months ago, Italy’s National Cancer Institute reported it found coronavirus antibodies in four cancer patients even earlier: in October 2019.

Some researchers told Xinhua that the deduction that the coronavirus might have been in circulation before the central Chinese city of Wuhan reported its first cases illustrated how much is still unknown about the origin of the pandemic.

“Understanding how the virus spread can be useful now, as we trace the spread of the new and highly-infectious virus variants that have emerged in Britain, South Africa, and Brazil,” said Sestili, who is also one of the administrators of a social media information site dedicated to the pandemic.

“It is also important to help us know how to stop the spread of future viruses. The more we know the better off we’ll be,” he said.