Professor Alberto Zangrillo, head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, has said that the ‘virus clinically no longer exists in Italy’ and is weaker than it once was

    Policemen patrol as people relax and have a drink along a canal in the Navigli district of Milan (Image: AFP via Getty Images)

    Italian doctors have claimed that the coronavirus is getting weaker as the pandemic goes on.

    Professor Alberto Zangrillo was one of the medics who said that the bug is less lethal than it was at the European peak of the crisis in March and April.

    He said that swabs taken from patients in the past ten days had extremely small viral loads on, compared to ones taken a month ago.

    Prof Zangrillo, who is head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan in the northern region of Lombardy told RAI TV channel that: "In reality, the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy."

    His claims were echoed by Matteo Bassetti, the head of the infectious diseases clinic at the San Martino Hospital in Genoa.

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    A healthcare worker holds a test tube after administering a nasal swab in the medical center in Positano, Italy
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    He told news agency ANSA: "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."

    The claims have been refuted by a host of scientists however.

    World Health Organisation epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove and several other experts on viruses and infectious diseases, said Prof Zangrillo's comments were not supported by scientific evidence.

    "In terms of transmissibility, that has not changed, in terms of severity, that has not changed," Van Kerkhove told reporters.

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    It is not unusual for viruses to mutate and adapt as they spread.

    The pandemic has so far killed more than 370,000 people and infected more than 6 million.

    Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, also argued the claims were not backed up with evidence.

    He said major studies looking at genetic changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 did not support the idea that it was becoming less potent, or weakening in any way.

    "With data from more than 35,000 whole virus genomes, there is currently no evidence that there is any significant difference relating to severity," he said in an emailed comment.

    Prof Zangrillo, well known in Italy as the personal doctor of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said his comments were backed up by a study conducted by a fellow scientist, Professor Massimo Clementi, which Zangrillo said would be published next week.

    Zangrillo told Reuters: "We have never said that the virus has changed, we said that the interaction between the virus and the host has definitely changed."

    Workers of Rome's Colosseum wear protective visors
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    He said this could be due either to different characteristics of the virus, which he said they had not yet identified, or different characteristics in those infected.

    The study by Professor Clementi, who is director of the microbiology and virology laboratory of San Raffaele, compared virus samples from COVID-19 patients at the Milan-based hospital in March with samples from patients with the disease in May.

    "The result was unambiguous: an extremely significant difference between the viral load of patients admitted in March compared to" those admitted last month, Zangrillo said.

    Oscar MacLean of the University of Glasgow's Centre for Virus Research said suggestions that the virus was weakening were "not supported by anything in the scientific literature and also seem fairly implausible on genetic grounds."

    So far 33,475 people have died of Covid-19 in Italy.

    In the past day the death toll in the country has increased by 60.

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