COVID-19 is losing its potency and no longer clinically exists in Italy, a senior Italian doctor has claimed.
Dr Alberto Zangrillo, the head of Milan's San Raffaele Hospital in the hard-hit Lombardy region, said the new coronavirus has become much less lethal, with newly infected patients having weaker symptoms than a couple of months ago.
The comments caused a storm in Italy, a country that is slowly emerging from one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, with the president of the scientific body that advises the government saying he was "baffled" at the claim.
A study conducted at the San Raffaele hospital found that the number of viruses present in people who tested positive decreased significantly between March and May.
"The swabs that were performed over the last 10 days showed a viral load in quantitative terms that was absolutely infinitesimal compared to the ones carried out a month or two months ago," Dr Zangrillo told RAI television.
Following the analysis of 200 patients and comparing the viral load present in samples taken with a swab, the virus has "enormously weakened", according to Massimo Clementi, director of the Microbiology and Virology Laboratory of San Raffaele.
Another Italian doctor from a hospital in Genoa has echoed these views.
Matteo Bassetti, head of the infectious diseases clinic at the San Martino hospital, said: "The strength the virus had two months ago is not the same strength it has today".
Dr Zangrillo, the long-time physician of former premier Silvio Berlusconi, said some experts were too alarmist about the prospect of a second wave of coronavirus infections and suggested that politicians needed to take into account the new reality.
He said: "We've got to get back to being a normal country. Someone has to take responsibility for terrorising the country."
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Italy has the third-highest number of deaths from COVID-19 in the world, with 33,415 dying since February.
Dr Zangrillo said: "I say this well aware of the tragedy for those patients who didn't make it, but we cannot continue to give all the attention to self-proclaimed professors rather than actual virologists and hospital workers.
"In a clinical sense, the virus no longer exists. I am prepared to put my name to that statement. We've got to get back to being a normal country because the statistics show we have every capability of doing that."
He added that previous epidemics such as MERS and SARS "petered out by themselves".
"We've got to be wary, yes, but not kill ourselves unnecessarily. Our wards are emptying out," he said.
The Italian government has urged caution, saying it is far too soon to claim victory.
The undersecretary to the health ministry, Sandra Zampa, described the claim as "the wrong message, which risks creating confusion among Italians".
Franco Locatelli, the president of the National Health Council which advises the government, said he could only express "great surprise and absolute bafflement" at the claim.
"You just need to look at the number of new positive cases confirmed every day to see the persistent circulation of the virus in Italy," he said, according to the ANSA news agency.
There are currently 435 people in intensive care, 6,387 in hospital, and 32,253 people self-isolating at home with symptoms.