Italy and European countries could do more to fight the coronavirus. This is stated by Walter Ricciardi (Naples, 1959) a reference virologist for the Italian Government and advisor to the country’s Minister of Health, Roberto Speranza, in relation to Covid-19.
For exactly one year, when the pandemic officially started in Italy and Europe, practically all Italians know his surname, as a synonym for expert. His resume is impeccable: president of the Transalpine Higher Institute of Health between 2015 and 2018; and Italian representative of the Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO) between 2017 and 2020.
In an interview with EL ESPAÑOL, he assures that if it continues at the current rate, Italy would need a new confinement, lasting “between three and four weeks” to lower contagion rates. The biggest mistake that the countries of Europe are making, according to him, is not getting ahead of the virus but “chasing it”.
Today, February 21, marks one year since the start of the pandemic in Europe. What have we learned a year later?
We have learned that this virus is the same, although its dangerousness and aggressiveness is compounded by the variants. The difference, however, is made by the decisions of the governments. European Executives in general, especially in the second phase, the one that runs from last summer until now; they haven’t been particularly brilliant. The countries of the Asia-Pacific region, however, have acted differently. The hope is that we learn the lesson and fight this virus in a more coordinated and determined way at the European level. In other parts of the world it is not that they have completely resolved the situation, but they have come out in much better conditions compared to Europe.
What opinion do you have about Spain’s management of the coronavirus health crisis?
In all European countries, roughly, the same strategy has been carried out. The only ones that have acted in a relatively different way have been Finland and Denmark. The other states, such as Italy, Spain, France and even Germany have pursued the virus: thus, reacting and not acting against the coronavirus.
What is the difference between chasing the virus and acting against it?
The difference is in the following: when high numbers are reached, both for the sick and the deceased, going back is very difficult. Governments, in this context, would have to have the courage to implement very unpopular decisions, such as lockdowns and a high level of traceability. Both are fundamental pillars, without which you will always lag behind. And also, mass vaccinate. Continuous opening and closing is not good for your health or for the economy. If we do not act systematically we will always be chasing the virus.
You are the advisor to the transalpine Minister of Health, Roberto Speranza. What will the new Italian Government of Mario Draghi do to stop contagion in the country?
The Minister of Health has not changed with the newly launched Executive. I know that Roberto Speranza’s proposals will be the same, in relation to their great rigor and speed of application. On several occasions, these have been halted within the previous Italian government, both by the then Prime Minister [Giuseppe Conte] and by the presidents of the regions, the latter always very favorable to openness. And therefore, always behind the virus. My proposal, in the coming days, will focus on promoting the ‘no Covid’ strategy, which at the moment is the one being applied by Germany and Denmark. I hope that the current president of the Italian Council of Ministers, Mario Draghi, and his entire government, will follow this path. But it is still too early, considering that just a week ago the new Executive has officially entered into operation.
Governments would have to have the courage to implement very unpopular decisions, such as lockdowns
It is understood then that, for the moment, there will be a continuity of action with respect to the previous prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.
This coming week will be very important. Both in relation to the data, which will surely be more serious; as for the decisions that the Italian Government intends to apply. And we will finally see which path it will follow: if that of a non-Covid strategy or that of coexistence, which then would be identical to the one that has existed until now.
Why is the non-Covid strategy more effective when dealing with the virus?
The non-Covid strategy is made up of three pillars, equally necessary and fundamental: generalized confinement, traceability and mass vaccination. Widespread confinement reduces the circulation of the virus, the numbers of cases end up being more limited and can be easily traced. Traceability, meanwhile, allows the virus not to escape our hands. But if confinement, traceability and vaccination go separately, none of the three will be able to work.
Italian Christmases, for example, have been very different from those of Spain, since their country has been confined for almost two weeks. But today, likewise, Italy continues to account for an average of 12,000 new cases per day. What has not worked?
In Italy we have applied more rigid measures compared to others, but they have not been as rigid as needed. In the end, for this reason, today we are not in a situation where the data is so low that it is easily traceable. When you count 12,000, 13,000 or 15,000 infections a day, it is very difficult to trace and that is when you start to react. Compared to other countries that have had to confine again, Italy is a little better because certain measures were applied in time. But they are not enough to get back to normal.
In Italy, in recent days, his words in relation to a possible new confinement in Italy soon have had a great impact. How long would it have to last?
It depends on our starting points. Right now, in Italy, with 15,000 new infections a day, it would be necessary to apply a confinement of at least three weeks, probably four. The more time that passes, the more diffusing capacity the variants of the coronavirus will have. Which means that the confinement has to be proportionally longer. If you act quickly, the confinement will be more limited in time; If you act late, as has happened in France or the United Kingdom, you have to expect confinements of several months. Something that, sooner or later, ends up being applied when the numbers are very high.
Is it better that the State or the regions decide about the confinements? Spain and Italy have had opposite strategies. Do you think that a state management of the emergency, as in Italy, is more efficient to fight against the coronavirus?
Ideally, to coordinate the fight against a pandemic, it would be a global command. Because although at first only part of the planet is affected, the rest of the world continues to move normally, thus deferring possible solutions. But it is clear that this is something utopian. At least we could have a European command, but here too we are very late. At the country level, yes, management would have to be national. No doubts.
In Italy, with 15,000 new infections a day, a confinement of at least three weeks should be applied
If the European Union, for example, has managed contracts like those of Pfizer to purchase vaccines with the aim of distributing them equitably among the Member States: Why has there not also been a joint European coordination to curb the coronavirus?
Because Health and Health are areas of competence of the member countries, in the European treaties it is not foreseen that Health is transferred in favor of the European Union. Little by little, however, we are realizing that it is something useful and necessary. The pandemic, in fact, has helped understand this. But we are very far from moving from words to treaties; where it is conceivable to give up some sovereignty for greater health. Today each country acts the best it can. But the virus does not understand administrative divisions.
Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca: What are the strengths and weaknesses of each vaccine? What is the most decisive at this time?
The positive fact is that all three are very good and safe vaccines. Pfizer and Moderna are very important because they have also been authorized for the elderly, so for this group they are indispensable. The same is not the case with AstraZeneca, which can be used, at most, with 65-year-old patients, which prevents lowering the mortality of the most vulnerable sections of the population.
Why is there such a shortage of vaccines in the European Union? There is a general feeling that outside of Europe they are faster to get them.
There are two elements to consider. First, the productive. Manufacturing vaccines is something very complex, which few know how to do. With few factories and companies that can achieve this, it is very difficult to produce a large quantity of vaccines, and enough to cover the world’s population. Secondly, it is a question of speed and investment: Europe has reacted because Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands began to move last April, and then finally signed the first supplies last summer. It is a problem of production, but also of responsibility. The United States, the United Kingdom or Israel, for example, have a single decision maker. Europe has 27. Which makes everything slower and more difficult.
When will we return to normal?
It will depend on our decisions. Australia, New Zealand or South Korea have chosen a path that, after a year, is now allowing them to enjoy a relatively normal life, even without the availability of vaccines. They are the consequences of applying the non-Covid strategy. If we make the right decisions, in Europe we could return to a certain normality already before the summer. If we don’t, we still have many months to go. Normality would then arrive between the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022.