The World Health Organization on Monday reiterated that Covid-19 is still a “killer virus”, after a top Italian doctor claimed that the coronavirus “no longer exists” in his country, AFP reported.

The WHO stressed that the coronavirus had not suddenly become less pathogenic. “We need to be exceptionally careful not to create a sense that, all of a sudden, the virus, by its own volition, has now decided to be less pathogenic,” WHO Emergencies Director Michael Ryan said. “We need to be careful. This is still a killer virus.”

Head of San Raffaele Hospital in Milan Alberto Zangrillo had claimed last week that “the virus clinically no longer exists” in Italy. “The swabs performed over the last 10 days have showed a viral load that is absolutely infinitesimal in quantitative terms compared to those carried out a month or two months ago,” Zangrillo said. “Someone has to take responsibility for terrorising the country.”

The remarks came as Italy prepared to enter the next stage of its gradual easing of a nationwide lockdown that was imposed three months ago to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Milan is the capital of the northern region of Lombardy, which was severely affected by the virus.

Italy is the sixth worst-affected country in the world, with over 2.33 lakh cases. It has the third highest toll with 33,475 deaths. However, in May, new infections and fatalities have reduced, leading to lockdown restrictions being eased, Reuters reported.

Several specialists in Italy and abroad have also objected to Zangrillo’s claims. Dr Oscar MacLean of the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research said that Zangrillo’s claims were “not supported by anything in the scientific literature, and also seem fairly implausible on genetic grounds”.

Martin Hibberd, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that in a situation where the numbers of severe cases are falling, there may be time to start observing people with less severe symptoms, giving the impression that the virus is changing.

Meanwhile, the head of Italy’s National Health Council Franco Locatelli said that he was “baffled” by Zangrillo’s remarks. “It’s enough to look at the number of new positive cases confirmed every day to see the persistent circulation in Italy of the new coronavirus,” he added.

Director of Spallazani Infectious Diseases Institute in Rome Giuseppe Ippolito also said that there was no scientific evidence that the virus had “mutated or changed in potency”.

The Italian government has said that this is one of the most dangerous phases of the pandemic, and urged people to follow physical distancing norms and wear masks. Globally, there are more than 62.73 lakh cases, and Covid-19 has killed 3.75 lakh people worldwide.

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Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article said the number of Covid-19 cases in Italy is 23.31 lakh. The correct figure is 2.33 lakh. The error is regretted.