Italy regions accused of meddling with virus data

ROME (AFP) – A health expert has suggested Italy’s regions may be tampering with virus infection data to avoid being told to lock down again, sparking a furious row yesterday as the country prepares to reopen.

Lombardy, the worst-hit region, was singled out for criticism but angrily denied the claims and threatened to sue.

However, experts warned against rushing to the next stage of lifting the nationwide lockdown scheduled for June 3, when Italians will be allowed to move freely throughout the country for the first time in three months and foreign tourists will be allowed back in.

The government has reserved the right to keep some regions closed if they are still considered a contagion risk.

“There is a reasonable suspicion that the regions are using tricks so they don’t have to close again,” head of the Fondazione GIMBE health think tank Nino Cartabellotta told the Radio 24 broadcaster on Thursday.

In Lombardy, he said there had been “too many strange things about the data over the past three months”, including people counted as cured when they were released from hospital even when they were still sick.

There had been unusual delays in releasing the data even after the emergency phase was over, he said, and days when far fewer tests were carried out – as if Lombardy was avoiding uncovering new cases.

“It’s as if there was a kind of necessity to keep diagnosed numbers under a certain level,” Cartabellotta said.

The Lombardy region said the accusations were “very serious, offensive and above all do not correspond to the truth”.

But yesterday the Stampa newspaper said “dozens” of virologists over the past weeks have been “denouncing inconsistencies in the data because it underestimates” the number of infection cases.

Infectious disease expert Luigi Toma told the Messaggero newspaper yesterday there was “something not right about the tracing and monitoring” of the virus, “in Lombardy, but also Piedmont and Liguria”.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Italian government adviser Walter Ricciardi said there were “serious reasons to think the data is not reliable in some regions”.

It was “too soon to take a decision” on whether regions could reopen, he told the Repubblica newspaper yesterday, and Lombardy was a particular risk as it still had “20,000 people known to have the virus, as well asymptomatic cases”.

Three regions in the south – Campania, Sardinia, Sicily – have threatened not to allow people from the north in, or make them quarantine.

According to official figures, more than 33,000 people have died of the virus in Italy, nearly 16,000 of them in Lombardy.

The region recorded 382 new cases on Thursday, many more than any other.