ROME (AP) — Italian prosecutors say a top World Health Organization official lied to them about a spiked WHO report into Italy’s coronavirus response, revealing private communications Friday that are likely to embarrass the U.N. health agency.
Prosecutors in Bergamo placed Dr. Ranieri Guerra, at the time a WHO assistant director general, under investigation for allegedly making false declarations to them when he voluntarily agreed to be questioned in November. Guerra was the WHO’s liaison with the Italian government after Italy became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe last year.
They have not charged Guerra with any crime, outlining their allegations in an interim investigative document sent to the Italian foreign and justice ministries that listed him as one of six people under investigation in their probe.
Guerra did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The Agi news agency quoted him 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.
Prosecutors are investigating the huge COVID-19 death toll in Bergamo and whether Italy’s lack of preparedness going into the pandemic played a role. Their probe expanded to include the spiked WHO report into Italy's virus response, which revealed that the Italian government hadn’t updated its pandemic preparedness plan since 2006.
WHO pulled the report from its website on May 14, a day after it went up, and never republished it. The document's disappearance suggested that WHO removed it to spare the Italian government criticism, embarrassment and liability.
Guerra was a top official in the Italian health ministry during 2014-2017, when the pandemic preparedness plan should have been updated to comply with EU directives.
When asked at the time whether Guerra or the Italian government had intervened to spike the report, the WHO said it was removed by its regional office in Copenhagen due to “factual inaccuracies.”
But documentation compiled by Bergamo prosecutors, first reported by Italy's state-run RAI Report, indicated that Guerra maneuvered to have the report taken down and that the Italian government was upset with it. The documentation included private WhatsApp chats between Guerra and a top Italian public health official, Dr. Silvio Brusaferro.
In one chat, dated May 14, 2020, Guerra wrote Brusaferro that the decision to pull the report was known to the leadership of the WHO: “In the end I went to Tedros and got the document removed," a reference to WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
In another chat four days later, Guerra wrote to 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. "
The WHO press office, in an email to The Associated Press on Friday, denied that Tedros was involved in spiking the report and insisted all decision-making about it was done by the Copenhagen office.
“The director-general was not involved himself in the development, publishing or withdrawal of the report," the email said, repeating that it was removed because it “contained inaccuracies and inconsistencies" and had been published prematurely.
It added that Guerra was no longer an assistant director general but rather a “special adviser," which it said carried the same rank.
Prosecutors cited Guerra’s comments to them, which they said were contradicted by the facts, and concluded that “Guerra personally worked on the removal of the report from the WHO site.”
Previously, emails had shown that Guerra tried to have one of the report's main authors, Dr. Francesco Zambon, alter data in the report before it was published to say that Italy had “updated" its pandemic plan in 2016, which it had not. Zambon refused and filed an internal whistleblower complaint alleging that Guerra had tried to pressure him to change the data. Zambon recently resigned.
Guerra has defended his role, saying the report was pulled because of factual inaccuracies and that he did not intervene to have it removed but merely wanted the errors corrected. He has said Italy's 2006 pandemic plan was still valid and didn't need to be updated while he was in charge of prevention at the health ministry.
Dr. Giovanni Rezza, who is now in charge of prevention at the health ministry, has said that he didn't see anything particularly problematic in the spiked WHO report, much less worthy of censorship.
Guerra testified to prosecutors even though WHO's legal office had advised WHO officials in November that they were under no obligation to respond to Italian prosecutors' requests for questioning, given their diplomatic immunity as U.N. officials.
Guerra had gone in his personal capacity and was questioned as someone informed about the facts, not as a suspect. But prosecutors ended up placing him under investigation because they said “he made false declarations."
Prosecutors laid out the allegations against Guerra in an eight-page formal request to the Italian Foreign Ministry, seeking its assistance in obtaining cooperation from WHO in their investigation.