On June 20, around 5,000 people — unmasked and standing at close quarters — gathered in Florence’s historic Piazza Santa Croce to protest against the prospect of a Covid-19 vaccine. The rally had been organized by Il Movimento 3V, a political party dedicated to the abolition of mandatory vaccinations.

The independent MP Sara Cunial, told the crowd that she plans to refuse any coronavirus vaccine, should it become available, and accused the Italian government of attacking the constitutional rights of its citizens during the mandatory lockdown enforced in March and April.

“In these past months, but I’d say over recent years, what was attacked was much more than our constitutional rights,” she said. “Our human rights were attacked, our essential needs. They made us think that once more, by giving them the powers, we can accept leaving all of our sovereignty to these people, who I have, sadly, defined as criminals and thugs.”

Cunial, a leading voice in Italy’s vociferous anti-vaccination movement, was once an MP for the populist Five Star Movement. Last April, she was expelled from the party, which is part of Italy’s ruling coalition, for alleging that it is aiding the mafia.

Cunial had established herself as a controversial figure in Italian politics long before the pandemic cost the country more than 33,800 lives. In January 2018, she wrote a Facebook post describing vaccination as a “free genocide” and comparing such public health initiatives to Nazi-era genetic experiments. In May, she gave a speech to parliament accusing Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates of planning to depopulate the world and even wishing for a genocide. 

The Covid-19 crisis has boosted the ranks of anti-vaxxers around the world. Last Saturday, up to 20,000 people took part in demonstrations across Berlin against Germany’s coronavirus restrictions. The demonstrators spanned a wide range of interest groups, from left to rightwing extremists, including anti-vaxxers. In the U.S., one recent poll has shown that just 50% of people are committed to receiving a vaccine when it arrives. Another poll found that one in five said they would refuse to take a vaccine.

“Italy’s anti-vaxx model is similar to what has been tried in California and other places before, and it can be grimly effective if the audience are unaware of the reality that, after clean water, nothing has saved more human lives than vaccination,” said David Robert Grimes, a physicist and cancer researcher at the University of Oxford, who writes regularly about the public understanding of science. “Certainly, anti-vaccine activists would delight in vindication of their views politically, but they can only succeed at this if their disingenuous reframing goes uncontested.” 

The anti-vax movement in Italy has gained ground in recent years, in part thanks to the Five Star Movement. In 2019, the party opposed the passing of legislation to increase the number of compulsory vaccinations from four to 10 — it was eventually passed to raise the rate of country’s vaccine uptake from below 80% to 95%, as recommended by the WHO. Italian officials say vaccination rates have improved since it was introduced.

For years, anti-vaxxers made up part of Five Star’s support, but early 2019 witnessed the founding of Il Movimento 3V — a political party dedicated to their cause. 

“Vaccines are very popular with those who govern us. However, important and fundamental medical-scientific knowledge and valid therapies are neglected and often derided,” said Alessandra Bocchi, one of the Italian anti-vaccination movement’s founders and its current director, via email.

Earlier this year, Il Movimento 3V, was able to present its ideas to voters for the first time. It won almost 11,000 votes in January’s regional election in Emilia-Romagna, to the north of the country — not enough to win any council seats, but proof of the level of disinformation and mistrust surrounding vaccination in Italy.

Lorenzo Motta, 39, stood as a candidate for Il Movimento 3V. He describes the party as “freevax,” rather than “no vax,” and says that it seeks to give Italians a choice. A former marine officer of 17 years, Motta says he has been “damaged by vaccines” given to him as an experiment during his service. 

He is a father of four girls, and says only two have received mandatory vaccinations. 

“Our role is to alert, especially families with children. Because the child is the one that needs to be protected — it’s not a damage you can repair,” said Motta, during a telephone interview.

While Il Movimento 3V remains a marginal party, other supporters want to see more anti-vaxx protests. 

Marco Pisaneschi was introduced to the anti-vaccination movement in 2016 when a nephew of his friend allegedly became autistic after receiving the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Facebook discussions about the government’s management of the pandemic have made him skeptical about a Covid-19 vaccine, which, he believes is being created to modify human DNA. 

“I would like the movement to enter the government and to have power,” he said. “If not, we can’t get out of this problem.” 

Pisaneschi added that he would be enthusiastic to “make a revolution happen.”

Experts worry that, given the ongoing nature of the Covid-19 crisis, Italians could become more susceptible to pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Last month, for instance, over 500 municipalities across Italy took measures to halt the installation of 5G towers, owing to the spread of conspiracy theories linking cellular communications technology and the virus. 

According to Stefano Zona, an infectious diseases doctor and member of the pro-vaccine advocacy group IoVaccino, “It means that there are people in a position to make political decisions based on fake news. Today it’s 5G, but tomorrow it could be something worse. They could say, ‘No, we don’t want to have a vaccine for Covid, because Covid is a show put up by multinational companies.’” 

Illustrations by Sofiya Voznaya