Council of Europe condemns “unjustified scare” over swine flu

June 8, 2010 at 4:22 pm 1 comment

Published 7 June 2010, doi:10.1136/bmj.c3033
Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c3033

Council of Europe condemns “unjustified scare” over swine flu



Council of Europe condemns “unjustified scare” over swine flu

Adrian O’Dowd

1 London

The Council of Europe has heavily criticised the World Health Organization, national governments, and EU agencies for their handling of the swine flu pandemic.

The parliamentary assembly of the council—the international organisation that protects human rights and the rule of law in Europe—published a draft of a report that reviewed how the H1N1 pandemic was handled.

National governments, WHO, and EU agencies had all been guilty of actions that led to a “waste of large sums of public money, and unjustified scares and fears about the health risks faced by the European public,” says the report.

The conclusion came in the parliamentary assembly’s social, health and family affairs committee report published on 4 June.

The report was prepared by Paul Flynn, socialist member of the assembly and Labour MP for Newport West and approved by the committee ahead of a plenary debate at the end of this month. It says there was overwhelming evidence that the seriousness of the pandemic was vastly over-rated by WHO, which led to a distortion of public health priorities.

Presenting his report at a committee meeting in Paris, Mr Flynn said, “This was a pandemic that never really was.”

The committee said there were “grave shortcomings” in the transparency of decision making about the outbreak, which generated concerns about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on decisions taken.

In particular, WHO and European health institutions were not willing to publish the names and declarations of interest of the members of the WHO emergency committee and relevant European advisory bodies directly involved in recommendations concerning the pandemic, the committee said.

This anxiety was in line with concerns raised by the BMJ in its investigation into how the pandemic was handled (BMJ 2010;340:c2912, 3 June doi:10.1136/bmj.c2912).

The joint BMJ and Bureau of Investigative Journalism investigation found that key scientists advising the WHO on planning for a flu pandemic had done paid work for drug firms that stood to gain from the guidance these scientists were preparing.

WHO’s advice led to governments around the world stockpiling billions of dollars worth of antiviral drugs as part of global pandemic preparations, but these conflicts of interest have not been publicly disclosed by the WHO.

Fiona Godlee, BMJ editor-in-chief, attended the committee meeting in Paris and addressed the parliamentarians. She said, “Key guidance from WHO—on the need to stockpile antivirals, on the effectiveness of flu vaccines, and on pandemic flu in general—was authored by experts being paid by industry.

“Given the huge public cost and private profit from the flu pandemic, the existence of these conflicts of interest is of grave concern, more so because WHO has not been transparent about them.

“WHO’s credibility has been seriously damaged by these events. Restoring credibility is crucial if WHO is to serve its proper function as the world’s most trusted technical and policy organisation.”

In the council’s report, Mr Flynn took a closer look at how the pandemic was handled in three countries—the UK, France and Poland—because these countries showed some of the most extreme reactions to the announcement of the pandemic in June 2009.

The UK’s Department of Health initially announced that about 65 000 deaths were to be expected. At the beginning of 2010, this estimate was downgraded to only 1000 fatalities.

By January 2010, fewer than 5000 people had been registered as having caught the disease and 360 deaths had been recorded. France also overstated the pandemic and initially ordered 94 million doses of vaccine. It managed to cancel orders for 50 million doses of vaccine, but was left with millions of unnecessary doses as only 5.7 million people were vaccinated by March 2010. The final French public health bill for vaccines amounted to {euro}365m (£300m; $435m).

Conversely, Poland is one of the few countries in Europe not to have purchased large quantities of vaccines because of safety fears and distrust of the drug companies producing them, says the report.

The Council of Europe’s committee report sets out a series of urgent recommendations for greater transparency and better governance in public health.

Harvey Fineberg, President of the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academy of Sciences and chair of the WHO committee review into the management of the H1N1 Pandemic and functioning of the International Health Regulations, welcomed the BMJ investigation and the Council of Europe report.

“These reports raise questions about potential, inappropriate influences on WHO decision making in the assessment and response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and, more generally, question practices employed by WHO to guard against conflict of interest among its expert advisers,” he said. “These topics are among those that will be fully considered by our review committee. At our upcoming meeting in Geneva (30 June to 2 July 2010) we anticipate hearing from critics of WHO as well as from those who were involved from the public and private sectors, at national and international levels, and in policy and decision making related to the H1N1 pandemic.”

Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c3033

The report, The handling of the H1N1 pandemic: more transparency needed, is at:

Also see related article:


Entry filed under: Health, Politics. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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