Tuesday, January 12, 2010

WHO, investigated for swine flu mismanagement, says it will investigate itself

The BBC today notes that:

The Council of Europe is planning an investigation, to begin later this month, into whether pharmaceutical companies influenced public health officials to spend money unnecessarily.

In Geneva, a WHO spokeswoman acknowledged there were questions to be answered.

She said the review of its management of the pandemic would be conducted with independent experts, and the results would be made public.

However, the review will not begin until the pandemic itself is declared over - and that could still be months away.

UPDATE: The Washington Post reported Jan 14 on statements by Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for the World Health Organization, who denied WHO had changed the pandemic flu definition in anything but its usual manner of modifying definitions, and said that all conflicts of interest at WHO had to be disclosed and were taken very seriously. [See earlier blogs for discussion of how 80% of WHO's budget does not come from member states, and how the WHO pandemic definition was changed. Here is a 2004 WHO definition:

An influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus appears against which the human population has no immunity, resulting in several, simultaneous epidemics worldwide with enormous numbers of deaths and illness.

and here (May 26, 2009 at Science blogs) you can see that the definition was a moving target last spring, which ultimately did not change, after a 2006 change that extracted disease severity from the pandemic definition:

WHO earlier had defined phase 6 as sustained community spread of the virus in two regions of the world but last week put that definition on ice, following pressure from member countries that criticized the phasing system for not taking into account disease severity. Fukuda said in the next few weeks that WHO hopes to hold a videoconference with prominent scientists and public health specialists who have “a wide range of opinions” about how to define phases in influenza outbreaks. “We’re trying to see what kind of adjustments might be made to make sure that the definitions really meet the situation,” said Fukuda.

Fukuda himself is a former US CDC official who has worked on avian flu for the past 12 years, and participated in responses to small avian flu outbreaks in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

How the world's response to swine flu came to mirror the planned response to a future, widespread avian flu epidemic could be related to Fukuda's experience and expertise. I wonder what he can tell us about this aspect of WHO's swine flu actions?

Keiji Fukuda is assistant director general of the WHO.

Keiji Fukuda is assistant director general of the WHO. (Anja Niedringhaus - AP)

Meanwhile, the Guardian discusses the Council of Europe investigation:

European health chiefs are to hold emergency talks about whether pharmaceutical giants have unduly influenced governments into squandering public money on vast stockpiles of unnecessary swine flu drugs...

The text of the resolution proposed by Wodarg (who is Chair of the Health Subcommittee of the Council of Europe) calling for an inquiry states that "in order to promote their patented drugs and vaccines against flu, pharmaceutical companies influenced scientists and official agencies responsible for public health standards to alarm governments worldwide and make them squander tight health resources for inefficient vaccine strategies, and needlessly expose millions of healthy people to the risk of an unknown amount of side-effects of insufficiently-tested vaccines."

The total bill for fighting swine flu in the UK was put at £1bn in a parliamentary question back in September. It is expected to have risen since then.

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