ROME (AP) — A top World Health Organization official has strongly denied making false statements to Italian prosecutors about a spiked U.N. report into Italy’s coronavirus response, doubling down on his assertions in court documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Dr. Ranieri Guerra, a WHO special adviser, outlined his position in a 40-page response, with a 495-page annex, to prosecutors who placed him under investigation last month for having allegedly made false statements to them when he was questioned Nov. 5.
The prosecutors’ claims create a picture “that is quite different from the reality of the facts and above all, are imprecise and don’t adhere to the reconstruction of events that Dr. Guerra provided,” said the response signed by Guerra’s Rome-based attorney, Roberto De Vita.
Prosecutors are investigating the huge COVID-19 death toll in the Lombardy province of Bergamo, which was hit hardest when Italy became the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe last year. Their investigation initially focused on whether delayed lockdowns in Bergamo contributed to the toll, but has expanded to include whether Italy’s overall preparedness going into the crisis played a role.
That second path of investigation was sparked by controversy over a WHO report into Italy’s response that was published by the U.N. health agency May 13, 2020 but taken down a day later from the WHO website and never republished.
The ensuing scandal revealed that Italy’s pandemic preparedness plan hadn’t been updated since 2006, and the report’s disappearance suggested that WHO had spiked it to spare the Italian government criticism and potential liability. WHO has said it was removed because it contained inaccuracies and was published prematurely.
Guerra, who was serving as a WHO liaison with the Italian government during the crisis, has not been charged. But he became embroiled in the scandal after the coordinator of the report, Dr. Francesco Zambon, accused Guerra of pressuring him to alter data in the report to make it appear that the pandemic plan had been “updated” in 2016-2017 when it had not.
Bergamo prosecutors have said the preparedness plan should have been updated during Guerra’s 2014-2017 tenure as head of prevention at the Italian Health Ministry to reflect new international guidance from the WHO and European Commission in 2009 and 2013.
In the new document, Guerra argued the WHO guidelines weren’t compulsory and that the EU guidance was primarily about coordination with other states, not about internal pandemic plans.
Guerra also noted that before he left the ministry to join the WHO in 2017, he wrote the then-minister alerting her that Italy needed a new pandemic preparedness plan. As a result, his response said, prosecutors should “verify if the action initiated by Dr. Guerra in September 2017 was followed by those who succeeded him.”
In addition, Guerra pointed the finger at Italy’s regions, which are largely responsible for health care: He argued national preparedness plans are only designed to provide organizational planning, while individual regions are responsible for putting the plans into concrete action with local legislation and policies of their own.
Guerra also said he had nothing to do with the decision to spike the report and that the original impetus came from WHO’s Beijing office, which objected to a politically sensitive timeline of the China origins of COVID-19.
“Kindly pull the document off the web immediately. Consider this an emergency,” WHO’s China representative, Gauden Galea, wrote Zambon and others May 14 in an email contained in the annex. “This document is inaccurate and contradicts the HQ timeline in a couple of places.”
Zambon has acknowledged he took the report off the web because of the China inaccuracy, fixed it, and reprinted the report. But WHO never put it back up on the website.
The Bergamo prosecutors outlined their allegations against Guerra in a March 8 rogatory request to the Italian justice and foreign ministries, seeking their assistance in forwarding specific questions to the WHO as part of the investigation.
Included in the prosecutors’ document were transcripts of WhatsApp chats between Guerra and Dr. Silvio Brusaferro, president of Italy’s Superior Institutes of Health, in which Guerra appears to boast that he had intervened to have the report spiked.
“In the end I went to Tedros and got the document removed,” Guerra wrote Brusaferro May 14, 2020, referring to WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
In his response to prosecutors, Guerra questioned the authenticity of the partial WhatsApp chats and said they lacked necessary context to be understood. Regardless, he said, the content “has no relevance with respect to the declared investigation.”
The WHO press office has denied that Tedros was involved in spiking the report and insisted it was taken down based on “inaccuracies and inconsistencies” in the text, which it said hadn’t cleared all approvals.
Guerra’s lawyer, De Vita, said in an interview that Guerra has suffered greatly from the months of controversy over the report and was embittered to now find himself under investigation, when he freely went to prosecutors to contribute what he knew as a scientist and civil servant.
“He could have, as others probably did, availed himself of functional diplomatic immunity,” De Vita said of Guerra’s status as a U.N. official. “If he had something to hide, even remotely,” he never would have gone.
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