Fri | Apr 16, 2021

ITALY | Europe staggers as infectious variants power virus surge

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2021 | 12:20 AM

Healthcare workers move a patient at the infectious ward of the Bulovka hospital in Prague, Czech Republic, on February 24, 2021.
Healthcare workers move a patient at the infectious ward of the Bulovka hospital in Prague, Czech Republic, on February 24, 2021.


The virus swept through a nursery school and an adjacent elementary school in the Milan suburb of Bollate with amazing speed. In a matter of just days, 45 children and 14 staff members had tested positive.

Genetic analysis confirmed what officials already suspected: The highly contagious coronavirus variant first identified in England was racing through the community, a densely packed city of nearly 40,000 with a chemical plant and a Pirelli bicycle tire factory a 15-minute drive from the heart of Milan.

“This demonstrates that the virus has a sort of intelligence. ... We can put up all the barriers in the world and imagine that they work, but in the end, it adapts and penetrates them,’’ lamented Bollate Mayor Francesco Vassallo.

Bollate was the first city in Lombardy, the northern region that has been the epicentre in each of Italy’s three surges, to be sealed off from neighbours because of virus variants that the World Health Organization (WHO) says are powering another uptick in infections across Europe. The variants also include versions first identified in South Africa and Brazil.

Europe recorded one million new COVID-19 cases last week, an increase of nine per cent from the previous week and a reversal that ended a six-week decline in new infections, WHO said on Thursday.

“The spread of the variants is driving the increase, but not only,’’ said Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, citing “also the opening of society, when it is not done in a safe and a controlled manner”.


The variant first found in the UK is spreading significantly in 27 European countries monitored by WHO and is dominant in at least 10 countries: Britain, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Israel, Spain and Portugal.

It is up to 50 per cent more transmissible than the virus that surged last spring and again in the fall, making it more adept at thwarting measures that were previously effective, WHO experts warned. Scientists have concluded that it is also more deadly.

“That is why health systems are struggling more now,” Kluge said. “It really is at a tipping point. We have to hold the fort and be very vigilant.”

In Lombardy, which bore the brunt of Italy’s spring surge, intensive care wards are again filling up, with more than two-thirds of new positive tests being the UK variant, health officials said.

After putting two provinces and some 50 towns on a modified lockdown, Lombardy’s regional governor announced tightened restrictions Friday and closed classrooms for all ages. Cases in Milan schools alone surged 33 per cent in a week, the provincial health system’s chief said.

The situation is dire in the Czech Republic, which this week registered a record-breaking total of nearly 8,500 patients hospitalised with COVID-19. Poland is opening temporary hospitals and imposing a partial lockdown as the UK variant has grown from 10 per cent of all infections in February to 25 per cent now.