The World Health Organisation’s handling of the swine flu pandemic was deeply marred by secrecy and conflict of interest with drug companies, a top medical journal said on Friday.
The British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that WHO guidelines on the use of antiviral drugs were prepared by experts who had received consulting fees from the top two manufacturers of these drugs, Roche and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).
In apparent violation of its own rules, the WHO did not publicly disclose these conflicts when the guidelines were drawn up in 2004, according to the report, jointly authored by the London-based non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
A draft assessment prepared for the Council of Europe, also released on Friday, likewise lambasts the WHO for lack of transparency, wasting huge sums of public money and provoking “unjustified fears”.
It also points to potential health risks stemming from the “fast track” manufacture of vaccines.
WHO decisions led governments worldwide to stockpile vast quantities of antivirals, and its decision to declare a pandemic in June 2009 triggered the purchase of billions of dollars worth of hastily manufactured vaccines.
Much of these stocks have gone unused because the pandemic turned out to be far less lethal than some experts feared, fuelling suspicion that Big Pharma exerted undue influence on WHO decisions.
The BMJ report also reveals that at least one expert on the secret, 16-member “emergency committee” formed last year to advise the WHO on whether and when to declare a pandemic received payment during 2009 from GSK.
Announcing that swine flu had become a global pandemic automatically triggered latent contracts for vaccine manufacture with half-a-dozen major pharmaceutical companies, including GSK.
“If authors of WHO guidance which promoted the use of certain drugs were being paid at the same time by the makers of those drugs … that is reprehensible and should be condemned in the strongest possible terms,” Chris Del Mar, a member of the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation, was quoted as saying in the BMJ report.
The WHO has refused to identify committee members, arguing that they must be shielded from industry pressure.