ROME (AP) – The UN epidemiologist who denounced the withdrawal by the World Health Organization of a report on Italy’s coronavirus response says it is being retaliated against because it has ruled and calls on the agency to fulfill its obligations to protect whistleblowers.
Dr Francesco Zambon said he had lodged an internal ethics complaint with the WHO in May after saying he had been pressured by a senior WHO official to falsify data to hide the fact that Italy had not updated its preparedness plan. 2006 flu pandemic.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Zambon said he never wanted to fight the WHO, but now feels professionally isolated because he has complied with WHO regulations to report alleged violations.
“I couldn’t keep quiet,” he said. “I do this because I believe in WHO and because I believe in WHO values. One of them is integrity. “
Zambon, WHO’s main coordinator for Italy and its regions during the pandemic, was one of the authors of a WHO report examining how Italy reacted when it became the epicenter of the European outbreak at the end of February. The report aimed to help other countries prepare as the virus spread globally, but it struck a sensitive nerve here as it noted that Italy had entered a crisis with an outdated pandemic plan and that its initial response to was “improvised, chaotic and creative. “
The WHO extracted the report from its website on 14 May, one day after its publication, and never republished it. The WHO said it contained “factual inaccuracies”, but did not say what they were. Zambon says the only inaccuracy was an outdated chronology of the Chinese virus that he immediately removed, but the report was never reloaded or distributed.
The scandal over the withdrawal of the report made headlines in Italy amid suggestions that the WHO rejected the report in order to relieve criticism, embarrassment and government responsibility.
In an interview, Zambon said he was pressured to avoid Italy failing to update its 2006 pandemic preparedness plan. He quoted a May 11 email from Dr. Ranieri Guerra, a deputy general manager. to the WHO working in liaison with the Italian government, telling it to “correct” the date to show that the plan was “last updated in 2016”. He said Guerra followed a phone call that he described as threatening.
Guerra was responsible for prevention at the Italian Ministry of Health from 2014-2017 and wrote to the then minister that the plan needs to be updated.
Zambon said he refused to give in to Guerra’s request because the 2016-2017 plan was the same as in 2006. “We couldn’t really say the plan was updated because it wasn’t true,” he said.
Guerra declined repeated requests for comment to the AP. In an interview with La7 television on Sunday, he said the previous plan was considered “current” until the launch of the new WHO guidelines in 2018, when he left the ministry.
But the 2006 plan contains holes in its implementation phases, which critics say could explain Italy’s critical shortage of protective equipment and the chaotic initial response to COVID-19.
Guerra also denied putting any pressure on Zambon and said he could not fire him because he was reporting to a different WHO chain of command.
WHO did not immediately respond to requests for the status of Zambon’s complaint. The WHO has previously said that it has mechanisms to manage internal problems and disputes.
Meanwhile, both Guerra and Zambon have been in talks with Italian prosecutors investigating the government’s response, defying WHO guidelines.
A November 1 email from the WHO’s legal department, reported by RAI’s state-run “Report” program, noted that the UN agency was facing several parliamentary trials and inquiries into COVID-19.
“We must be aware that we do not set a precedent or implicitly waive any of the applicable WHO immunities by participating in such hearings,” the e-mail said.
Italian public health officials said they had no idea the WHO report was in the works, suggesting a breakdown in communications between the UN agency and the government. As a WHO liaison with the government, Guerra received a detailed outline of the report on April 14 to share with the government, but it is unclear how widely it was shared or whether it followed.
Dr. Giovanni Rezza, head of infectious diseases at the Higher Institute of Health in Italy, said he did not see anything terribly problematic in the report, much less worthy of censorship. “If anyone is looking for a possible responsibility, it clearly refers to the period when the plan was not updated,” he said in a December 12 briefing.
“Of course, self-criticism can be made, but I found no reason to censor the report,” he said. “I’m shocked if that happened.”
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