Stranded on a tiny Italian island, a cancer researcher grew alarmed as one, and then three more visitors fell ill with COVID-19. Paola Muti braced for a rapid spread of the coronavirus to the 800 close-knit islanders. Her mother was born on Giglio Island, and she often stays at the family home with its charming view of the sea through the parlor windows. But days passed, and none of the islanders developed any COVID-19 symptoms, though conditions seemed favorable for the disease to spread. Dr. Armando Schiaffino, the island's sole physician for around 40 years, shared Muti's worry, the AP reports. "Every time an ordinary childhood illness, like scarlet fever, measles or chicken pox strikes, within a very few days practically all get” infected on Giglio, he said. Muti, a breast cancer researcher and an epidemiology professor, decided to try to find out why it wasn't happening this time. Were residents infected but not showing symptoms? Was it something genetic? Or just plain luck?
By then, Muti was trapped on the island by Italy's strict lockdown rules. Of the 800 or so year-round residents, 723 volunteered to be tested. Of those tested, only one was found to have antibodies, an elderly Gigliese man who had sailed on the same ferry to the island as a German visitor, Muti said. Intrigued about why "the virus didn't seem to interact" with the native population, Muti hadn't reached any conclusions by the time she was preparing to leave the island this month. It's possible, Muti guessed, that islanders weren't exposed to enough COVID-19 to be infected. A Rome expert voiced that possibility, saying some patients are simply less capable of spreading the disease for reasons that are unclear. "It could be something more or less trivial—nobody got infected because through good luck there was little contact," a London expert said. Or "it could be something important and exotic," such as a genetic variant common among the island's population.