ROME (Reuters) – Italy will start testing a representative sample of 150,000 people in 2,000 cities next week to understand the extent of its COVID-19 epidemic, the head of the government’s scientific committee told parliament on Thursday.

Italy has had more than 222,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and over 31,000 deaths since its outbreak came to light on Feb. 21. Most of them have been in its northern regions, while the south has escaped largely unscathed.

Italy was the first European country to impose a nationwide lockdown in March to curb the contagion. Last week it began relaxing some of the restrictions.

“This testing programme will involve a significant sample of citizens and will allow us to understand the (extent of the) national spread of the virus,” said Agostino Miozzo, the head of the scientific committee.

Late in April the government announced it had picked U.S. healthcare company Abbott Laboratories to supply the blood testing kits for the sample, compiled by national statistics bureau ISTAT to represent the overall population.

The peak of Italy’s contagion passed around the end of March, but the country is still registering hundreds of new cases and deaths everyday, and experts are worried that infections could surge again now the lockdown has been eased.

“We are moving towards relative normality, but we are always concerned and we look at that contagion index like a nightmare,” Miozzo said.

Even before the national testing campaign several Italian regions and some large companies took things into their own hands and have begun testing their citizens and staff independently.

Only the United States and Britain have so far suffered more coronavirus casualties than Italy, but the national statistics bureau ISTAT has warned that its number of fatalities is probably far higher than officially reported.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante, editing by Gavin Jones and Alexandra Hudson)