A TINY Italian island has miraculously escaped the ravages of killer coronavirus, with not a single resident contracting the disease, tests show.
Picturesque Giglio Island was braced for the bug after five visitors fell ill with Covid-19, say experts.
Among those scratching their heads over the anomaly was cancer researcher Paola Muti.
The epidemiology professor expected the virus to rip through the 800 closely-knit islanders, many of whom she knows well.
Her mum was born on Giglio Island and she often stays at the family home with its charming view of the sparking sea.
But days passed and none of Giglio’s islanders developed any Covid-19 symptoms even though the conditions seemed favourable for the disease to spread like wildfire.
That’s despite Worldometers’ latest stats showing that the bug has killed more than 633,000, and infected 16.5million worldwide.
Giglio’s first known Covid-19 case was a man in his 60s who arrived on February 18 – days before Italy’s first case would be diagnosed in the north.
The man came to Giglio for a relative’s funeral, and had been coughing all the way though the service, Muti said.
The virus is mainly spread through droplets when someone coughs, sneezes or talks.
The man headed back on the ferry the same day to the mainland and died three weeks later in a hospital.
On March 5, four days before Italy’s national lockdown was declared, three more visitors came from the mainland and later tested positive on the island.
One of them was a German man from northern Italy, the initial epicenter of Europe’s outbreak.
He socialised for several days with longtime pals in Giglio, including in public eateries.
After a week, due to a bad cough, he was tested on the island and the result was positive. He self-isolated in a house on Giglio.
There were other known cases, including an islander who had lived in Australia for two years before slipping back onto Giglio in mid-March during lockdown to see his parents.
Three days after arriving on Giglio, he developed a mild fever and tested positive, Muti said. He self-isolated at his parents’ home.
Dr Armando Schiaffino, the island’s sole GP for about 40 years, shared Muti’s assumption that a local outbreak was imminent.
He told Muti: “This is incredible. In this full pandemic, with all the cases that came to the island, nobody is sick!”
Every time an ordinary childhood illness, like scarlet fever, measles or chicken pox strikes Giglio, practically all get infected within a matter of days, he told news agency the Associated Press.
Such diseases sweep among the Gigliesi, as the residents are known, as they socialise with each other daily, and live in densely packed homes built against the remnants of a fortress erected centuries ago to protect against pirates.
Yet no other case has surfaced on Giglio, including since lockdown was lifted in early June, and tourists from throughout Italy have been arriving.
Muti, a breast cancer researcher at the University of Milan where she is an epidemiology professor, was determined to find out why they hadn’t been struck down.
Her challenge was to find out whether residents were perhaps infected but didn’t show symptoms.
Alternatively, was it something genetic, or just plain luck, she pondered.
Muti was trapped on the island by Italy’s strict lockdown rules. What was especially puzzling to her was that many of the islanders had had close contact with the infected visitors.
Giglio is part of Tuscany, and its health office quickly sent over kits to test for antibodies to see if others may have had Covid-19.
In late April, just before the first lockdown travel restrictions would be eased, the islanders had their blood tested, lining up outside the island’s school and doctor’s office.
Of the 800 or so year-round residents, 723 volunteered to be tested.
Simone Madaro, who had been working at the cemetery when one infected visitor had gathered with fellow mourners, said everyone wanted to take part, “to help science”.
After the funeral, there were greetings, hugging and kissing, as is the custom. Then came the procession to the cemetery, where there were more hugs and kisses – yet the mourners remained Covid-free.
Of the islanders tested, only one was found to have antibodies, an elderly Gigliese man who had sailed on the same ferry to the island with the German visitor, Muti said.
Daniel Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London said it may be down to good luck.
Altmann also noted that it could be something important and exotic, such as a genetic variant common among the island’s population.
Muti hadn’t reached any conclusions to solve the mystery by the time she was preparing to leave the island this month.
It’s possible, Muti guessed, that islanders simply weren’t exposed to enough Covid-19 to contract the bug.
She plans to write up up her study for eventual publication, but would like to do a genetic study someday if she could obtain funding.