ROME – The United Nations epidemiologist, who has denounced the World Health Organization’s withdrawal of a report on Italy’s response to the Coronavirus, said he is suffering retaliation for his statements, and called on the agency to fulfill its obligations to protect whistleblowers.
Dr Francisco Zampon said he filed an internal ethics complaint with the WHO in May after he said he had been pressured by a senior WHO official to falsify the data to conceal that Italy had not updated its pandemic flu preparedness plan since 2006.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Zampon said he never wanted to get into a fight with the WHO, but now feels he is professionally isolated for following WHO regulations to report alleged misconduct.
He said, “I cannot be silent.” “I do this because I believe in the World Health Organization and because I believe in the values of the World Health Organization. One of them is integrity.”
Zampon, the WHO’s chief field coordinator for Italy and its regions during the pandemic, was one of the authors of the WHO report examining how Italy responded when it became the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe in late February. The report was aimed at helping other countries prepare with the spread of the virus worldwide, but it struck a nerve here because it indicated that Italy entered the crisis with an old epidemic plan and that its initial reaction was “improvised, chaotic and creative.”
The World Health Organization pulled the report from its website on 14 May, the day after it appeared, and has not republished it. The World Health Organization said it contained “factual errors,” but did not say what. Zampon says the only inaccuracy was the old schedule for the virus in China that removed it immediately, but the report was not re-uploaded or distributed.
The report’s withdrawal scandal grabbed headlines in Italy amid suggestions that the World Health Organization had canceled the report to spare the government criticism, embarrassment and responsibility.
In the interview, Zampon said he had been pressured to tamper with the fact that Italy had not updated its pandemic preparedness plan since 2006. He cited an email on 11 May from Dr Ranieri Guerra, an assistant director-general at the World Health Organization who was working to contact the Italian government, asking him ‘Correct’ history to show that the plan ‘was last updated in 2016.’ He said Guerra followed up on this with a phone call he described as a threat.
Guerra was in charge of prevention at the Italian Ministry of Health from 2014-2017, writing to the then minister that the plan needed to be updated.
Zampon said he refused to waive Guerra’s request because the 2016-2017 plan was the same as the 2006 plan. “We can’t really say the plan was updated because it wasn’t correct,” he said.
Guaira declined repeated requests for comment to the AP. In an interview with La7 TV on Sunday, he said the previous plan was considered “current” until the release of new WHO guidelines in 2018, which is the time he left the ministry.
But the 2006 plan contains loopholes in its implementation phases that critics say could help explain Italy’s severe shortages of protective gear and the chaotic initial response to COVID-19.
Guerra also denied that he had put any pressure on Zampon and said he could not expel him because he was reporting to various WHO chain of command.
The World Health Organization did not immediately respond to requests regarding the status of the Zampon complaint. The World Health Organization has previously said it has mechanisms to deal with internal issues and disputes.
Meanwhile, Guerra and Zambon have spoken with Italian prosecutors to investigate the government’s response, in defiance of WHO guidelines.
A November 1 email from the WHO Legal Department, mentioned by the state-run RAI TV program “Report”, indicated that the UN agency is facing multiple lawsuits and parliamentary investigations into COVID-19.
The e-mail read: “We must be careful not to set a precedent or implicitly waive any of the immunities applied to the World Health Organization by attending these hearings.”
Italian public health officials said they had no idea that the WHO report was being prepared, indicating a break in communications between the UN agency and the government. As the WHO’s liaison with the government, Guerra was provided with an outline of the report on April 14 to share with the government, but it is unclear how broad his involvement was or whether he had followed it up.
Dr. Giovanni Reda, head of the infectious diseases department at the Higher Institute of Health in Italy, said that he did not see anything in the report as a big problem, nor was it worth censorship. “If anyone is to look for potential liability, it is clear that this relates to the period in which the plan has not been updated,” he said in a press briefing on December 12.
He said, “It is natural for a person to criticize himself, but I did not find any reason to censor the report.” “I am in shock if this is what happened.”