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Medical staff are inside a gazebo outside a pharmacy where rapid COVID-19 tests are carried out, in Rome, on Feb. 11, 2021.YARA NARDI/Reuters

Only a few days after he was sworn in as Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi is facing calls to put his economic reform agenda on hold and concentrate on a new health emergency as the highly contagious British variant of COVID-19 sweeps through the country.

Leading health authorities this week urged Mr. Draghi’s unity government to implement stricter measures to fight the virus even though the number of daily new COVID-19 positives is well below its November peak.

They fear that the British variant, known as the variante inglese in Italy, will soon trigger a surge in infections and fatalities unless a strategy is implemented that could include a tight national lockdown like the one seen in the spring.

The Instituto Superiore di Sanita, Italy’s top health agency, revealed in a technical report published Monday that the British variant has been found in 17.8 per cent of new cases, and as high as 59 per cent in some areas – an indicator that it could become the dominant strain.

Studies of the British variant, which emerged in southeast England in November, suggest that it is deadlier than other versions of the coronavirus, as well as being far more contagious.

A new report by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, a scientific adviser to the British government, said the variant is likely to be 30 per cent to 70 per cent more lethal than other versions in circulation. The report compared hospitalization and death rates of the British variant, formally known as B.1.1.7, with those infected by other strains.

On Tuesday, Massimo Galli, a prominent infectious diseases professor and doctor at Milan’s Luigi Sacco Hospital, said on Italian TV that patients who have the British variant are flooding into his wards. “We all agree that we’d like to reopen, but I find a ward invaded by new variants – and that is the case all over Italy, which makes it easy to predict that we will soon have more serious problems,” he said. “It’s unpleasant, but it’s a fact.”

Walter Ricciardi, a professor of public health at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome and adviser to the Italian health ministry, called for an aggressive new approach to fight the virus. “It is clear that the strategy of co-existence with the virus adopted so far is ineffective and condemns us to instability, with a heavy number of deaths every day,” he told the Italian news agency Ansa.

Italy’s foundation for evidence-based medicine, GIMBE, welcomed the calls for stricter measures. Its president, Nino Cartabellotta, said on Monday that “a two-week total lockdown would bring the [contagion] curve down, enabling the resumption of track-and-trace.”

Andrea Crisanti, the University of Padua microbiologist who late in the summer predicted the second wave, and CTS, the government’s scientific committee, both called for a lockdown to contain the spread of new COVID-19 variants.

Italy uses a three-tier regional restriction system – red, orange, yellow – to control the spread of the virus. Most of the country’s 20 regions are in yellow, where the restrictions are the lightest. Under the previous government, led by then-prime minister Giuseppe Conte, Italy loosened restrictions in January even as other countries, including Germany, were tightening them.

Mr. Draghi has made tackling the pandemic a priority but has given few details of his strategy, and whether it would include a national lockdown.

By Tuesday, Italy had recorded 94,171 pandemic deaths, the second highest in Europe after Britain, and more than 2.7 million cases.

The large number of COVID-19 infections in some places makes it more likely for new variants of the virus to emerge. Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk explains how vaccines may not be as effective against these new strains, making it a race to control and track the spread of variants before they become a dangerous new outbreak.

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