Italy investigates WHO official in row over Covid response

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.

Italy investigates WHO official in row over Covid response
Bergamo, the northern Italian town at the epicentre of the first wave of coronavirus that swept Italy early last year. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

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Guerra spoke to investigators in November after Francesco Zambon, the lead author of a hastily withdrawn WHO report on Italy’s early response to the crisis, said it had been pulled to avoid embarrassing the Rome government.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details, beyond repeating the WHO’s previous position that the report into Italy’s coronavirus response had been withdrawn because it “contained inaccuracies and inconsistencies”.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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Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”