Italian Whistleblower Says W.H.O. Superiors Forced Him to Change Coronavirus Report

BERGAMO, ITALY - APRIL 3: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) A member of the Italian Red Cross walks through an alley in the old town during his home visit to COVID-19 positive patients on April 3, 2020 in Bergamo, Italy. The number of new COVID-19 cases appears to be decreasing in Italy, …
Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Dr. Francesco Zambon, formerly a senior employee of the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), accused W.H.O. on Wednesday of forcing him to change a report on Italy’s early response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The WHO published the report on May 13, 2020, but pulled it the same day. W.H.O. officials are refusing to cooperate with Italian prosecutors investigating Zambon’s claims.

Prosecutors are investigating the high death toll in Bergamo, Italy, one of the worst hotspots in the awful Italian coronavirus outbreak and the epicenter of the coronavirus wave that would roll across all of Europe.

Residents of Bergamo are highly critical of their government’s response. A survivor’s group called Noi Denunceremo (“We Will Denounce”) filed over 250 complaints against Italian officials over the past year, prompting a judicial inquiry.

Dr. Zambon was part of the W.H.O. team assigned to draw lessons from the Italian experience and help other nations improve their response to the pandemic. The team swiftly produced a report entitled “An Unprecedented Challenge: Italy’s First Response to Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus].”

The W.H.O. pulled down the report the same day it was published, supposedly because it contained some minor factual errors, which Zambon maintains were quickly and easily corrected. He said the real reason the report was quashed was because it reflected very poorly on the Italian government, so strings were pulled to shut it down.

Zambon told Sky News on Wednesday that W.H.O. jeopardized lives around the world by suppressing his report, since other governments could have learned valuable lessons from Italy’s errors:

“They could have had what we didn’t have, time,” he told me at his home in Venice.

“We [in Italy] didn’t have time to prepare, but this report would have allowed them to buy time, which was by far the most important route for getting better prepared for the pandemic.”

“I think that the problem here is about the lack of independence and lack of transparency of the World Health Organization.

“The mandate of the organization is to preserve, to promote the health of the citizens of the entire world… and the story that happened in a year shows that the organization is bound by personal interests, by governments’ interest, and by financial powers,” he said.

Zambon also said W.H.O. violated its own whistleblower rules by refusing to follow up when he complained about interference from senior officials.

“This little Italian story helps you understand the bigger Chinese story,” Zambon told AFP on Wednesday, arguing Beijing also used its influence within W.H.O. to prevent the organization from criticizing China or fully investigating the origins of the pandemic.

The big problem for W.H.O. is that Zambon claims to have documentation to back up his complaints, and it implicates top officials in the organization, including Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 

The Associated Press reported last week that Italian prosecutors are particularly interested in former W.H.O. Assistant Director-General Dr. Ranieri Guerra, the organization’s liaison to Italy during the coronavirus outbreak, who they accused of making false statements to them when he was questioned in November.

W.H.O. also appears to have made false statements to investigators. The AP noted the official explanation that Zambon’s report was spiked due to “factual inaccuracies” was contradicted by emails and chat messages that allegedly showed Guerra working to suppress the report because it embarrassed the Italian government.

“In the end I went to Tedros and got the document removed,” Guerra wrote to Italian public health official Dr. Silvio Brusaferro in a chat message from the day after the report was pulled. (AFP rendered this chat message as a boast: “In the end I went right up to Tedros and I had the document withdrawn.”)

Four days later, Guerra told Brusaferro he was working to “see if we can make [the report] fall into thin air,” which is essentially what happened to it.

Gurerra also sent emails to Zambon pressing him to alter data in the report, prompting Zambon to file his whistleblower complaint with W.H.O. and ultimately resign from the organization.

The W.H.O. press office denied Director-General Tedros was personally involved in killing the report and continued to insist it was pulled down after being published prematurely with “inaccuracies and inconsistencies,” which would not explain why it wasn’t corrected and republished later.

Italian investigators grew “perplexed,” as Sky News put it, when W.H.O. officials insisted Guerra gave them false testimony as a private citizen, not a representative of the organization, and began refusing to answer questions from prosecutors. 

“The investigators are particularly surprised the health body instructed staff not to cooperate, claiming they had immunity from questioning; but they allegedly went even further by writing to the Italian health ministry urging them to tell the investigators to ease up the pressure on the W.H.O.,” Sky News reported.

W.H.O. said Wednesday that Guerra is no longer one of the organization’s 11 assistant directors general, but is currently a “special adviser” to Tedros. Guerra denied any wrongdoing and said he “told prosecutors everything I knew at the time, in complete good faith.” 

W.H.O. confirmed Wednesday that it has received a request for “international judiciary assistance from the Office of the Public Prosecutor in Bergamo.”

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