ROME (AP) — The World Health Organization denied Thursday that Italian officials pressured it to spike a report into Italy’s coronavirus response but said the U.N. agency should have shared the document with Italy’s government before publishing it.
Dr. Hans Kluge, head of WHO’s Europe office, said the agency’s procedures had been “overlooked,” as he sought to explain WHO’s decision to pull the report from its website a day after it was posted May 13. By then, it had already cleared all internal WHO approval protocols and been printed.
The mystery over the spiked report became a headache for WHO and a problem for the Italian government. The document noted that Italy hadn’t updated its influenza pandemic preparedness plan since 2006 and that its initial response as virus cases multiplied was “improvised, chaotic and creative.”
Prosecutors in Italy’s Bergamo province are investigating whether any criminal liability should be assigned over the vast number of deaths after Italy in late February became the first Western nation with a significant outbreak. They have questioned the report’s lead coordinator, who has said an Italian WHO official pressured him to falsify the date of the pandemic plan.
WHO previously said the report was removed because it contained unspecified “factual inaccuracies” and wasn’t reposted because a different review process was adopted instead. Kluge said Thursday that the inaccuracies concerned a timeline about the virus in China, which the authors had immediately deleted and had new versions of the report printed without it.
Kluge acknowledged that other factors ultimately entered into the equation. He noted that when WHO performs a country assessment, “we share the report with our main partner, which is the Ministry of Health, not to have any censor (or) to correct, but to see whether there are any factual mistakes.”
“And this is something that did not happen,” he said during a media briefing. “So in that sense, this is something that was overlooked.”
Dr. Francesco Zambon, who coordinated the report and became a whistleblower to denounce its removal, has said that while some WHO reports are joint efforts with individual governments, the Italy report was always intended as an independent account which precluded sharing the full final draft with the government.
He said he had provided WHO’s liaison with the Italian government, Dr. Ranieri Guerra, with a detailed outline of the report a month before publication to share with the Health Ministry. “Only when the report was launched, I understood that it was not done,” Zambon told The Associated Press in an interview last month.
Zambon filed an ethics complaint with WHO after he said he was pressured to change the date of the pandemic plan from 2006 to 2016 by Guerra, a WHO assistant director-general.
Guerra was in charge of prevention at the Italian Health Ministry from 2014-2017. He has denied that he should have updated the plan in those years, saying the guidelines were considered “current” until he left the ministry.