Italy investigates WHO official in row over Covid response

AFP - [email protected]
Italy investigates WHO official in row over Covid response
A picture taken on March 15, 2021 shows a woman wearing a protective mask walking along an empty street in the "Citta Alta" of Bergamo as three-quarters of Italians entered a strict lockdown as the government put in place restrictive measures to fight the rise of COVID-19 infections. (Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP)

Prosecutors probing Italy's initial response to the coronavirus pandemic have sought information from the World Health Organization, the agency confirmed Wednesday, amid claims a top WHO official lied to them.


Italian media reports say prosecutors in Bergamo have placed under investigation top WHO official Ranieri Guerra for allegedly having given them false information.

Guerra, until recently one of 11 assistant director generals at the WHO, is currently a special advisor to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Prosecutors in the northern town of Bergamo, the epicentre of the first wave of coronavirus that swept Italy early last year, have opened an investigation into the potential mismanagement of the crisis.


Guerra spoke to investigators in November after Francesco Zambon, the lead author of a hastily withdrawn WHO report on Italy's early response to the crisis, said it had been pulled to avoid embarrassing the Rome government.

Zambon, who resigned from the WHO on March 31, told AFP on Wednesday that the WHO had a problem with standing up to political pressure.


He pointed to accusations that it has been reluctant to press China over the origins of the pandemic. 

"This little Italian story helps you understand the bigger Chinese story," Zambon said.

Responding to claims he was now being investigated for lying, Guerra denied any wrongdoing.

"I told prosecutors everything I knew at the time, in complete good faith," he told the AGI news agency, adding that he was ready to speak to them again.

Guerra did not respond to requests for comment from AFP.

Prosecutors from Bergamo visit Rome's Palazzo Chigi as part of their investigation into the Italian government's initial response to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE/AFP.


In Geneva, a WHO spokesman said: "WHO is currently reviewing a request for international judiciary assistance from the Office of the Public Prosecutor in Bergamo."

He declined to give further details, beyond repeating the WHO's previous position that the report into Italy's coronavirus response had been withdrawn because it "contained inaccuracies and inconsistencies".

The spokesman noted that Guerra at the time had been on mission to support the Italian government. In this capacity he reported to senior WHO officials "the need for checking of data and making appropriate corrections in the report".

The paper, drafted by a WHO office in Venice, was published on May 13th and withdrawn the following day.

One of its most damning findings is that Italy had an outdated pandemic preparedness plan, dating to 2006.

The document also characterised the initial response of Italian hospitals to the virus onslaught as "improvised, chaotic and creative", making up for a lack of official directives. 

On Sunday, Italian current affairs programme "Non e l'Arena" showed a leaked Whatsapp chat in which Guerra seemingly bragged about blocking the report.

"In the end I went right up to Tedros and I had the document withdrawn," he wrote to a senior health official in Rome, apparently referring to the WHO chief.

The WHO has denied Tedros was ever involved in the affair.

The Bergamo investigation is also looking at why authorities failed to quarantine the area earlier, and has questioned former premier Giuseppe Conte and several ministers.

Bergamo chief prosecutor Antonio Chiappani told AFP he would not comment on his team's work.


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