Italian Authorities Investigating Senior WHO Official Over Suppression Of Report On Italy’s Pandemic Performance; Coverup Extended ‘Higher Up’ Than Imagined Emergency Response 12/04/2021 • Elaine Ruth Fletcher Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) WHO’s Ranieri Guerra (left) as cited by Rai Report in a WhatsApp Message: “I sent a profuse apology to the Minister. In the end I went to Tedros and had the document withdrawn.” On right, Silvio Brusaferro of the Italian Institute of Public Health. Italian prosecutors in the city of Bergamo, the epicentre of the country’s first COVID wave, are reportedly investigating Ranieri Guerra, a senior World Health Organization advisor, for misleading testimony and his role in the suppression of a WHO report into Italy’s coronavirus response “An Unprecedented Challenge“- which contained critical material about the Italian government’s actions in the early days of the pandemic. A series of leaked Whatsapp exchanges between Guerra and Silvio Brusaferro, head of the Italian Institute of Public Health (Istituto Superiore di Sanità) published by the Italian investigative TV series Rai Report, suggest that Guerra pressured WHO to have the report retracted – not only to protect his own reputation as a former Italian Ministry of Health official in charge of prevention, but also to appease other powerful figures such as Brusaferro and the Minister of Health Roberto Speranza. "I sent very warm apologies to the [Health] Secretary" (@robersperanza) "I went to @DrTedros and I had the document withdrawn." Why did @WHO's Ranieri Guerra wrote this message to Silvio Brusaferro, president of @istsupsan?https://t.co/P3l777kyTVhttps://t.co/dDwNQQueeo pic.twitter.com/JYrOwtK39V — Riccardo Puglisi (@ricpuglisi) April 12, 2021 “I was brutal with the fools in the Venice document,” Guerra reportedly told Brusaferro, president of the Public Health Institute, in reference to the report, authored in spring 2020 by a team in WHO’s Venice office, and withdrawn just hours after publication [ see previous Health Policy Watch Story]. “I sent a profuse apology to the Minister. In the end I went to Tedros and had the document withdrawn.” In another message, Guerra was quoted as telling Brusaferro that he was meeting with the Italian health minister’s cabinet chief about revising the report and that the minister’s office “said to see if we can make it fall into thin air. ” Rai Report, in a Facebook post on its story, described the “dense plot of messages and meetings that emerges from WhatsApp chats contained in the rogatory that the prosecutor of Bergamo sent on 8 March to the World Health Organization. The rogatory, or request for legal assistance, was filed by Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with WHO. “The goal is to eliminate any trace of the critical report on Italy written by researchers in Venice. The deputy director of the World Health Organization Ranieri Guerra tells his moves to the president of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Silvio Brusaferro. “Once the dossier was withdrawn, it had to be rewritten: it was the agreement between WHO, the Ministry of Health and the Istituto Superiore di Sanità to modify the text,” ” relates Rai Report, in the series of Facebook and Twitter posts, coinciding with its TV series. Bergamo Prosecutors Investigating Faulty Government Response To Pandemic Piazza di Spagna. Rome – Scenes from the suppressed WHO Report, An Unprecedented Challenge While Guerra has not been charged with any crime, he is reportedly one of a number of people under investigation by Bergamo prosecutors for failing to disclose, or covering up, some of the events around Italy’s first COVID wave – and the related WHO report. A document containing the Bergamo prosecutors’ concerns and allegations was sent to the Italian Foreign and Justice Ministries. On 8 March, Italy’s Foreign Ministry sent a rogatory, or request for legal assistance, to WHO, citing the issues the prosecutors had raised. Prosecutors in Bergamo, the northern Italian town which became the epicenter for the initial outbreak of coronavirus that swept through the country in February and March of 2020, initially summoned Guerra, who also is a former official in the Italian Ministry of Health, to testify on the circumstances around the government’s initial response. Critics have described the response in Bergamo, in particular, as delayed and indecisive; authorities initially tried to maintain a business as usual approach in the city, even as the first clusters of COVD cases exploded in exponential terms. Guerra, who formerly headed the Ministry’s prevention activities, voluntarily agreed to be questioned by prosecutors in November 2020. At the time of his testimony, Guerra, then WHO Assistant Director General for Strategic Initiatives, also was serving as WHO’s liaison with the Italian government to support its COVID-19 response. The report at the center of the controversy was pulled by the WHO from its website on 14 May 2020, just hours after its publication. Lead coordinator of the report, Francesco Zambon, later charged that the report had been withdrawn at the behest of Guerra to spare the Italian Ministry of Health embarrassment over its own state of preparedness – and particularly in order to avoid stains to Guerra’s own reputation as the MOH head of prevention between 2014 and 2017 – during a period when the Ministry had failed to update its 2006 pandemic preparedness plan. A series of email exchanges between Zambon and Guerra, previously published by Health Policy Watch, suggested that Guerra tried to get Zambon to alter key passages in the report, to suggest that the outdated pandemic plan from 2006 had indeed been “updated” under Guerra’s direction as the director general for prevention at the ministry – when it fact hadn’t been. The WHO report is significant to the investigation of the enormous COVID-19 death toll seen in Bergamo, insofar as it contains details on the initial phase of response – and how an overall lack of national preparedness could have exacerbated the death toll. Zambon – Slams “Conspiracy of Silence” Around WHO Report WHO’s Franceso Zambon has resigned after he spoke out against the Organization’s censorship of a report assessing Italy’s COVID-19 response. Speaking to Health Policy Watch, Zambon said that the latest Rai Report, disclosures suggested that the decisions around the coverup of the Italian pandemic report extended much higher in the Italian government – and WHO circles – than he had previously imagined. “For me it’s quite disturbing in a way to see that the level of involvement and this kind of conspiracy of silence was such that I couldn’t have imagined,” Zambon said, referring to the report’s suppression. “Basically it emerges that there were personal interests of more than just one person [Guerra],” said Zambon. “Here, it seems that [WHO Director General] Tedros was involved, Kluge (WHO Regional Director) is involved, Brusaferro, which is quite high in the Italian hierarchy, and also Minister of Health Speranza,” said Zambon. “And this contradicts entirely the narrative that WHO has given so far. If you remember that at the WHO press conferences even Kluge said, absolutely no, this report was never withdrawn from political pressure, when according to this chat, that is exactly the opposite.” Zambon added that the issues raised by the suppression of the Italian report, An Unprecedented Challenge, also go to the heart of the controversy around the findings of a recent WHO-led investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus – which critics have said is politically biased by China’s vested interests. China has been keen to discredit some of the key hypotheses for how the virus may have emerged – and particularly the theory that the virus could have accidentally escaped from a Wuhan laboratory that was researching bat coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV2. “The dynamics of power are the same: If WHO is not able to publish an independent report on a country like Italy, how can we think that WHO is able to publish an Independent report about a country like China,” Zambon asked, saying the issues raised by the pandemic report have re-emerged even more seriously in the current controversy around the SARS-CoV2 origins. Member States Need to Tackle Issue of WHO Independence In light of both controversies, the independence of WHO needs to be addressed more frontally by WHO member states when the World Health Assembly meets this May, Zambon said: “This is now about how WHO functions. There is no independence in the way WHO works…I think that this should be discussed – the matter of WHO being able to carry out investigations – which is not at the moment among the functions WHO can have, and this total lack of independence and transparency,” he said. “Member states need to tackle it [the issue],” he asserted further. “There might be political interests in not wanting to do that, but I think that maybe the civil society then should have a role.” Just last month, Zambon announced that he had resigned from WHO. Speaking to Health Policy Watch on Monday, He said that he was effectively frozen out of his professional capacity, “mobbed” by colleagues, and thus “forced to resign” after publicly protesting the suppression of the report that had been produced by a team under his direction in WHO’s Venice Office for Investment for Health and Development. He said that he is now appealing his case through WHO’s internal justice procedure – after WHO refused to grant him whistleblower protections. WHO Denies Political Suppression – Claims Report Contained ‘Inaccuracies’ WHO has repeatedly denied that the report, An Unprecedented Challenge, was suppressed for political reasons – or that Director General Tedros was personally involved. WHO statements have insisted the decision to pull the report was taken by the WHO’s European Regional Office in Copenhagen – after certain factual inaccuracies were identified post-publication. In a statement to Health Policy Watch, a WHO spokesperson repeated that stance again saying: “The director-general was not involved himself in the development, publishing or withdrawal of the report.” The spokesperson added that the report, published by the WHO Regional Office for Europe, contained data and information that “had not been fact-checked and contained inaccuracies and inconsistencies. It should not have been published and it was withdrawn by EURO (under the authority of the Regional Director, EURO).” In his former role as WHO Assistant Director General, and during the time the report was being developed, Guerra was assigned “on mission status” to support the Italian COVID-19 response, the first European country to face the full brunt of the pandemic in spring 2020, the spokesperson also noted: “In this capacity he reported to both, the Director-General and the Regional Director , EURO, and he alerted both with regards to the need for checking of data and making appropriate corrections in the report.” The spokesman added that Guerra was no longer a WHO Assistant Director General – but rather a “special adviser” to the Director General. According to other insiders, such positions, commonly awarded to senior staff who leave or retire from WHO, are typically held as consultancies, rather than full-time staff positions with the accompanying UN privileges and immunities from prosecution. In his response, Guerra, speaking through his lawyer, Roberto De Vita, warned Rai Report, that its reporting was “seriously damaging to the rights of Dr. R. Guerra, his personal and professional reputation and his role as a WHO official”. Italy’s Agi news agency also quoted Guerra as saying he was shocked and “deeply embittered” that prosecutors had placed him under investigation, that he expected WHO to respond to them, and remained available for further clarification. “I have been and am in absolute good faith and I am amazed that the prosecutors have a different impression,” Agi quoted him as saying. Guerra added that he told prosecutors everything he knew at the time but did not have access to all information. – Updated on 13.04.2021 Image Credits: Rai report , WHO, An Unprecedented Challenge . Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.