ROME — Italian prosecutors formally accused a top World Health Organization official of lying to them about a spiked U.N. report into Italy’s coronavirus response, revealing private communications Friday that are likely to embarrass the U.N. agency.
Prosecutors in Bergamo placed Dr. Ranieri Guerra, WHO’s assistant director general, under investigation for allegedly making false declarations to them when he voluntarily agreed to be questioned in November. Guerra had been WHO’s liaison with the Italian government after Italy became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe last year.
Prosecutors are investigating the huge COVID-19 death toll in Bergamo and whether Italy’s lack of preparedness going into the pandemic played a role. Their probe expanded to include the related scandal over the spiked WHO report into Italy’s virus response because it revealed that the Italian government hadn’t updated its pandemic preparedness plan since 2006.
The U.N. health agency pulled the report from its website May 14, a day after it went up, and never republished it. Its disappearance suggested that the WHO removed it to spare the Italian government criticism, embarrassment and liability.
When asked at the time whether Guerra or the Italian government had intervened to spike the report, WHO said it was removed by its regional office in Copenhagen because it contained “factual inaccuracies.”
But the documents released by Bergamo prosecutors, first reported by state-run RAI Report, indicated that Guerra manoeuvred to have the report removed because the Italian government was upset with it. The document included private WhatsApp chats between Guerra and a top Italian public health official, Dr. Silvio Brusaferro.
Prosecutors cited Guerra’s comments to them, which they said were contradicted by the facts, and concluded that “Guerra personally worked on the removal of the report from the WHO site.”
Guerra was a top official in the Italian health ministry from 2014-2017 when the pandemic preparedness plan should have been updated.
Emails show he tried to have one of the report’s main authors, Dr. Francesco Zambon, alter data in the report to say that Italy had “updated” its pandemic plan in 2016 when it had not. Zambon refused and filed a whistleblower complaint within the WHO alleging that Guerra had tried to pressure him to change the data. Zambon recently resigned.
Guerra apparently disregarded WHO legal advice in November that told WHO officials they were under no obligation to respond to Italian prosecutors’ requests for questioning, given their diplomatic immunity as U.N. officials.
Guerra had gone in his personal capacity and was questioned as someone informed about the facts, not as a suspect. But prosecutors ended up placing him under investigation because “he made false declarations.”
Neither Guerra nor the WHO responded to emails Friday seeking comment on the issue.
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Nicole Winfield, The Associated Press