Transparency International Calls On World Health Assembly To Investigate Disclosures by WHO’s Italian Whistleblower
Piazza di Spagna. Rome – Scenes from the suppressed WHO Report, An Unprecedented Challenge

EXCLUSIVE: The Geneva Observer has learned that Transparency International and a broad coalition of organizations advocating for a more robust protection mechanism for UN whistleblowers has sent an open letter to the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA) urging WHO Member States to call for an independent review of the disclosures made by former WHO researcher Dr Francesco Zambon in the case of the sudden and highly controversial withdrawal of a report about Italy’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020.

Dated Wednesday (May 26), the letter also demands the WHO reform “its whistleblowing mechanisms and ensure the independence of its justice system for future whistleblowers.”

The report, “An Unprecedented Challenge: Italy’s first response to Covid-19,” was published a little over a year ago on WHO’s European Regional website, then withdrawn after a few hours and never republished, even though it had been approved by the organisation’s scientific committee. To this day, WHO maintains that the report was prematurely published and withdrawn because it contained “factual inaccuracies,” an assertion contradicted by documents gathered by Italian prosecutors in Bergamo investigating why Italy’s pandemic plan had not been updated since 2006.

Transparency International Letter Sent to WHA President 

Transparency International’s strongly worded open letter was sent to the President of this year’s WHA, Bhutan’s Health Minister Dasho Dechen Wangmo. In addition to Transparency International, the open letter is supported by the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN), the Government Accountability Project (GAP,) and more than 30 anti-corruption, public health, and whistleblower protection organizations and individuals.

“We are all deeply concerned about the case on public health grounds from two perspectives,” the TI letter states.

“First, we are concerned with what appears to be the deliberate suppression of a scientific report of great public interest value at the time it was published and still valuable for ongoing learning. Second, the alleged retaliation against Dr. Zambon for reporting his concerns about the report’s suppression highlights serious failures of WHO’s whistleblowing policy – an essential element of any institution’s good governance.”

WHO’s Franceso Zambon resigned after he spoke out against the Organization’s censorship of a crucial report on Italy’s botched COVID-19 response

The coalition’s demand comes as civil society has been warning that freedom of expression and the public right to quality information was essential during a pandemic and, as the open letter states, “that those who expose harms, abuses and wrongdoings should be protected.”

Guerra Pressured Zambon to State that Italy’s Pandemic Plan had been Updated 

Documents obtained by The GIO reveal that on May 11, 2021, two days before the report was posted online, Dr. Ranieri Guerra, then WHO Assistant Director General in charge of Special Projects, seconded to the Italian Ministry of Health, pressured Francesco Zambon, the WHO’s Venice-based staff official who coordinated the writing of the report with a team of ten experts, to insert language claiming that Italy’s preparedness plan had last been revised in 2016 when in fact it had not been updated since 2006 – something that Zambon refused to do.

Former WHO Assistant Director General, Ranieri Guerra

Guerra had no formal authority over the publication of the WHO report. Updating Italy’s preparedness plan was, however, supposed to have been his responsibility when serving with the Ministry of Health in Rome prior to being appointed to the WHO by new Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in October 2017.

“You must immediately correct the text. (…) Don’t mess with me on this one and please no bullshit.(…) Sorry for the tone” Guerra wrote in his email, which he followed with an irate phone call to Zambon. According to knowledgeable sources who spoke to The Geneva Observer under the condition of anonymity, the relationship between the two men – while appearing cordial in some previous exchanges – had become strained from the moment the decision to write the report was made in March.

Italian Prosecutors Now Investigating Guerra for Alleged “False Testimony”

The exchanges and other documents are, now with the Italian prosecutors who are investigating Guerra for possible “false testimony” regarding his role in Italy’s preparedness planning and the WHO pandemic account.

Those same documents suggest that Dr. Tedros’ envoy to Italy was, from the beginning more preoccupied by his own and WHO’s relationship with the Italian government than by the report itself –  whose main objective was to share Italy’s experience and lessons learned with the world in the hope that other countries could be better prepared:  “Writing such a history is certainly a good idea (…), I am sure it will also please the government,” Guerra wrote to Zambon on March 25.

On April 14, in another email, Guerra told  Zambon that the researcher had  complete latitude to have his team write the report as they see fit. However,  he advised Zambon to “provide the [Italian] Health Minister with a more detailed index” of what the report would contain so the “Minister can give his blessing” to this as well as having the funding for writing the report provided by a foreign country.

Guerra demands a change in the report to say that the pandemic preparedness plan was “updated” in 2016 – the changes were not made.

According to documents and confirmed by the sources contacted by The G|O, Zambon and his team accepted that the Italian government should be informed about the writing of the report as a matter of “institutional courtesy” but that the document itself should not be shared in order to protect and maintain the WHO’s credibility and independence.

Guerra’s  claim insistence that the Italian pandemic plan had been updated was also debunked by a forensic expertise of the metadata of the 2006 plan’s PDF file. That file was  – published by the Italian public-broadcaster RAI in December 2020.

Guerra was trying to cover up what could be called “a dereliction of duty while he was in charge of prevention at the Italian Health Ministry,” a WHO insider told the Geneva Observer. In his defense, Guerra claims that the final responsibility to update the circa 2006 Italian pandemic plan was not in fact his -, a determination that in the end will be made by Italian justice.

Related stories:

·         The Italian Job: Obfuscation and Influence at the WHO

·         Senior WHO official under investigation in Italy denies lying to prosecutors

·         World Health Organization’s Censorship Of Report On Italy’s Pandemic Response Sets Dangerous International Precedent – Critics Say 

·         WHO Playbook For Responses To Media Queries On Suppressed Italian COVID-19 Report – Raises More Questions than Answers

Pressure Followed by Intimidation 

Pressure on Zambon was allegedly followed by intimidation.  According to Zambon, who has since resigned from his position in WHO’s Venice office, to the former WHO researcher, Guerra reportedly told him during a phone call on that same day, May 11, that he would have him fired by WHO DG Dr Tedros if he refused to modify the document.

The exchange prompted Zambon to immediately report the episode to WHO’s Ethics Office and informed it that he was taking a medical leave of absence due to “a threat email I received” from Assistant DG Guerra.

WHO Ethics Office Denies Zambon Whistleblower Protection

Several months later, WHO’s Ethics Office responded that Francesco Zambon could not have been a victim of retaliation as he did not have a reporting line to ADG Guerra: “Therefore, ADG Guerra’s alleged comments, while inappropriate, do not constitute retaliation(…)as defined by WHO policy.” The same email to the former researcher states further that: “…you were advised that as there has been no retaliation against you at this stage,” and that “therefore there is no need for protection.”

Zambon, isolated professionally and boycotted by his colleagues, subsequently resigned. Guerra, meanwhile, has become a special advisor in the Director General’s office – although according to existing WHO staff rules, he would be obliged to return when he turns 68 in June – beyond which even exceptional extensions of staff positions by the director-general are not supposed to be permitted.  WHO, however, did not comment on Guerra’s job status.

Transparency International Condemns WHO’s Decision on Zambon 

Transparency International’s letter strongly condemned WHO’s this decision to deny Zambon protections:

“The WHO’s unresponsiveness to Dr. Zambon’s attempts to raise serious public interest issues, and the lack of a timely resolution of his complaints of retaliatory treatment can only have a chilling effect on other WHO staff, as well as those working for similar international bodies, discouraging them from speaking up when it matters. The case also risks fueling serious distrust in WHO and UN systems” the letter reads. (…)” The whistleblowing policies of the United Nations have been a long-standing cause for concern for international whistleblowing protection and anti-corruption and human rights experts.

Zambon, in response to the TI letter, told The Geneva Observer and Health Policy Watch: “Over the last months I have been seeing from WHO officials the most bizarre statements on this issue.  Either there was a cover-up or else they simply don’t know the full facts.  Now that Transparency International spontaneously got this, I wait for an apology from WHO. Now I feel less alone.”

Asked to comment, a WHO spokesperson said that the Organization was “currently working on a reply to Transparency International”.

The WHO spokesperson acknowledged that in the case of Zambon, a “complaint by him against another WHO staff member was received by WHO in 2020 and is currently under review.

But the spokesperson contended that  Zambon, who resigned effective 31 March, “is not a whistleblower under WHO policy on whistleblowing; professional conflicts between staff members are handled in line with WHO’s regulatory framework and Zambon has availed himself of the options open to staff members in that respect.”

“WHO is cooperating with the Public Prosecutor in Bergamo, following his request for judicial assistance,” the spokesperson added.

UN Special Rapporteur’s Recommended UN Agencies Adopt Stronger Whistleblower Protections 

In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression specifically recommended the UN and its agencies” adopt effective policies to enable greater public access to information and to protect whistleblowers.” The open letter also refers to a report by WHO’s External Auditor scheduled to be discussed during WHA74.

“We note with keen interest that our concerns and calls for reform have been echoed in the findings of the Report of the External Auditor, published May 17, 2021, and scheduled for discussion on WHA74 preliminary agenda. The Report found a steep increase in the number of complaints of misconduct and retaliation and confirmed this should be a cause for concern for WHO management. Reported breaches of the WHO’s Codes of Ethics and Conflicts of Interest more than doubled, and complaints of retaliation sharply increased from 7 (in 2019) to 19 (in 2020). The CRE received a further 20 complaints. The Report stated that an ‘untenable’ lack of human resources’…[h]ampers the cause of justice’ and the resulting delays are particularly problematic given the large number of cases later found to be substantiated. (…) WHO should enhance its punitive and preventive measures, and urgently reduce delays in investigation and disciplinary action.”

Philippe Mottaz / @pmottaz – is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Geneva Observer.  Updated with permission from the article first published in The G/O on 26 May, 2021

Image Credits: WHO, An Unprecedented Challenge .

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