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WHO Asked to Review Spiked Italy Report, Whistleblower Case

By March, Italy had emerged as a major hotspot for coronavirus with cases on the rise and deaths being reported at an unprecedented rate. Italy would also go into one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in the same month. Devastating photos had emerged from inside the Covid wards which revealed the brevity of the situation to the world. Photo: AP

By March, Italy had emerged as a major hotspot for coronavirus with cases on the rise and deaths being reported at an unprecedented rate. Italy would also go into one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in the same month. Devastating photos had emerged from inside the Covid wards which revealed the brevity of the situation to the world. Photo: AP

WHO has said the report contained factual inaccuracies and was published prematurely and without securing all approvals.

WHO  Whistleblower protection groups urged the World Health Organization on Wednesday to launch an independent review into the case of an Italian researcher who reported being pressured to falsify data in a now-spiked WHO report into Italys coronavirus response.

The groups, including Transparency International, Whistleblowing International Network and some 30 other public health and anti-corruption groups, sent an open letter to the president of the World Health Assembly. The assembly, WHOs highest decision-making body, is made up of all WHO member states and is meeting this week.

In the letter, the signatories called for the U.N. agency to commit to reforming its whistleblowing protection policy. They said the Italian researcher, Dr. Francesco Zambon, had suffered retaliatory treatment for having reported the incident within WHOs internal ethics system.

Zambon resigned in March, saying he had been isolated and marginalized after he complained internally, and then publicly, about the scandal.

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Zambon has said he was pressured by a then-assistant director general, Dr. Ranieri Guerra, to falsify data about Italys preparedness going into the pandemic in a report he and other researchers were writing to help other countries prepare as COVID-19 swept across the globe last year.

Emails and drafts of the report show Guerra wanted the report to say that Italy had updated and reconfirmed its pandemic preparedness plan in 2016. Zambon says Italys plan dated from 2006 and refused to make the change.

The report was published May 13, 2020, but was taken down from the website a day later, after WHOs Beijing office flagged politically sensitive problems with a timeline about the virus origins in China. Zambon says he corrected the timeline and had the report reprinted, but WHO never re-posted it or distributed it.

WHO has said the report contained factual inaccuracies and was published prematurely and without securing all approvals. It has said WHO didnt pressure anyone, and that the decision to withdraw the report was taken by its regional European headquarters.

Guerra, for his part, has said he had no role in the decision to withdraw the report. In a legal filing to Bergamo prosecutors who are investigating Italys COVID-19 toll, Guerra said the pandemic plan didnt need to be updated during the time he was in charge of prevention at the Italian health ministry, from 2014-2017.

The open letter says the spiking of the Italy report deprived the world of vital public health information as the pandemic was gaining a foothold in Europe. Italy was the first country in the West to be hit hard.

And the letter said the alleged retaliation against Zambon for having drawn attention to it highlights serious failures of WHOs whistleblowing policy an essential element of any institutions good governance.

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first published:May 26, 2021, 16:12 IST