Covid: Italy's Bergamo brings new angle to the immunity debate

  • Video report by ITV News Europe Editor James Mates

A strange thing is happening in Bergamo, the north Italian city which was once Europe’s ground zero for coronavirus. Back in the spring it was almost overwhelmed by the virus. Now it appears to be riding out the second wave much better than many of the towns and cities that surround it.

There was no particular reason that Bergamo should have suffered so badly. It is believed that one of the first ‘super spreader’ events happened to take place here back in January, before the world had become fully aware of the new coronavirus and how lethally infectious it was. Before even the most basic preventative measures were in place, tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants had fallen victim.

In some ways Bergamo was an unwitting and unwilling laboratory for the theory of herd-immunity. If enough people could catch the disease, particularly younger people, could a population build up enough collective immunity that the virus would no longer be able to spread?

Professor Giuseppe Remuzzi, an epidemiologist with Bergamo’s Mario Negri Institute, has been carrying out widespread Covid antibody testing to try and find out. His results suggest that around 42% of the city’s inhabitants contracted the virus last spring - an enormous number. By comparison nearby Milan had an infection rate of around 7%.

The result, now that a second wave is sweeping across the province of Lombardy, is that infections in the Bergamo area are significantly lower than Milan’s, or any of the nearby towns that escaped relatively lightly the first time around.

Bergamo's hospitals are taking coronavirus patients from other parts of Italy. Credit: ITV News

We visited the new and ultra-modern Giovanni XXIII Hospital in Bergamo where the Covid wards are not only relatively empty, but taking patients from elsewhere to ease the pressure on other hospitals in the region that are struggling to cope.

It is a remarkable contrast to last March and April where tough decisions on who to treat and who to leave to die were being taken almost every day, where bodies were stacking up unburied and families were denied the right to mourn at their relatives’ funerals.

But are there lessons for the rest of the world in Bergamo about how to manage the Covid virus? In the view of most we spoke to here, probably not. For a start, the price they paid to establish the limited immunity they now enjoy is considered to have been way too high. Added to which, they are a long way short of actual ‘herd-immunity’ which most don’t consider to have any effect before you get infection rates of at least 60%.

Bergamo has been relatively unscathed by the second coronavirus wave hitting most European countries. Credit: ITV News

Immunity may not be the only factor at play; such was the shock of last spring, the deep trauma this city suffered, that local people may be behaving with considerably more caution than elsewhere in Italy. Certainly social distancing, mask wearing and adherence to Covid protocols were being rigorously observed by almost everyone during our visit. As one doctor put it: “we have social immunity as well as some serological immunity”.

And even the immunity they do have is not doing anything to help the local economy. Bergamo is locked down as tightly as the rest of Lombardy, under curfew with bars restaurants and nightlife shuttered almost completely.

Yes infections and deaths are lower, and that is a blessing, but even at these lower levels a fully functioning economy and the coronavirus are not managing to co-exist. In Bergamo, as everywhere else, they are going to have to wait for the vaccine.