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March 1, 2020
COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, capital of the Hubei Province in China and has since spread around the world.
The northern region of Lombardy is the most badly affected, with 3,095 deaths and 25,515 cases.
Coronavirus spread rapidly in Italy because the first person who was infected in the country was in the asymptomatic phase – meaning they showed no symptoms and could spread the virus undetected.
Massimo Galli, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Milan and director of infectious diseases at the Luigi Sacco hospital in Milan, said evidence suggested the virus may have been spreading under the radar in the quarantined areas.
“Italy should be a warning to everybody, everywhere,” he said.
“We have an epidemic because of one person who returned with an infection in an asymptomatic phase and it spread underground in the ‘red zone’.”
The red zone refers to the region of Lombardy in the north of Italy which has seen the most concentrated cases of coronavirus.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree early on Sunday 8 March enacting forced quarantine for the region of Lombardy – home to more than 10 million people – the financial capital Milan and multiple other provinces.
This totalled around 16 million residents, with affected areas including Venice, Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio Emilia, Rimini, Pesaro and Urbino, Alessandria, Asti, Novara, Verbano Cusio Ossola, Vercelli, Padua and Treviso.
“The fire spread in a large part of our region,” Galli added.
“What happened in Italy could happen everywhere in Europe. Maybe we are particularly unlucky.”
Another theory as to why coronavirus has affected Italy so badly is that they have an ageing population, with Galli explaining: “Italy is a country of old people.
“The elderly with previous pathologies are notoriously numerous here. I think this could explain why we are seeing more serious cases of coronavirus here, which I repeat, in the vast majority of cases start mildly and cause few problems, especially in young people and certainly in children.
“Our life expectancy is among the highest in the world. But unfortunately, in a situation like this, old people are more at risk of a serious outcome.”
Meanwhile, scientists at Imperial College London favour another theory – that in other countries there are lots of people with mild symptons, or possibly none at all, that are going undetected.
When did coronavirus arrive in Italy?
Infection began in Lombardy with three new cases on February 21, causing the Venice carnival and other sports events in the nearby areas to be halted when officials confirmed a third death two days later.
By February 25, Italy had confirmed its first case of coronavirus in the south and by March 1 it was announced that infections had risen by 40% in the country to 1,576 with the death poll reportedly at 34 people.
However, experts now believe that the beginnings of the outbreak were likely seeded at least two or three weeks before that first detection occurred, perhaps even before flights between Italy and China were suspended at the end of January.
“I can’t absolutely confirm any safe estimate of the time of the circulation of the virus in Italy, but some first evidence suggests that the circulation of the virus is not so recent in Italy,” Galli said.
“The virus circulated for several weeks before people were identified and sick people were found.
“People became infected without significant symptoms. The number of patients will increase in the next days.”