A top United Nations flu official has rejected allegations that the World Health Organization (WHO) exaggerated the severity of the H1N1 influenza pandemic under pressure from business interests.
"Let me state clearly for the record. The influenza pandemic policies and responses recommended and taken by WHO were not improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry," WHO Special Adviser on Pandemic Influenza Keiji Fukuda told a hearing at the Council of Europe.
AdvertisementA public parliamentary hearing titled "The handling of the H1N1 pandemic: more transparency needed?" was held on the fringe of the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg Tuesday.
The hearing, organised by the Assembly's Committee on Social, Health and Family Affairs, brought together representatives of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and of European vaccine manufacturers, as well as independent medical experts, to discuss this topic with parliamentarians. Some members of the Assembly - including the outgoing Chair of PACE's Sub-committee on Health Wolfgang Wodarg (Germany, SOC)1 - requested in a motion in December that the Assembly look into this question.
Participating in the hearting, the WHO Special Adviser Dr. Fukuda asserted that WHO took its role of providing independent advice to its 193 Member States very seriously, and has in place measures to protect itself from improper influences.
After the agency received reports of the new human strain of the virus in April last year, laboratory testing confirmed that existing antibodies to the current human H1N1 viruses did not react to the new form, underscoring its potential to cause a pandemic.
"The most important information was when investigations indicated that this new virus was causing community outbreaks with person to person spread," Dr. Fukuda told the Strasbourg-based Council.
"In Mexico, early outbreaks included deaths and severe respiratory illnesses requiring ventilators among previously healthy young people," he added. "WHO took decisive actions in accordance with the International Health Regulations but did not announce the start of a pandemic until 11 June 2009 when the updated pandemic criteria were met."
Stressing that the new virus spread with unprecedented speed, reaching 120 countries and territories in around eight weeks, Dr. Fukuda stated that cases have now has been reported in virtually all countries.
"Numerous safeguards are in place to manage conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest among members of WHO advisory groups and expert committees," he told the Council of Europe, which is tasked with protecting human rights, among other responsibilities.
With more than 14,000 laboratory-confirmed deaths reported to date, Dr. Fukuda warned that the pandemic is not over, adding that it would be misleading to compare this number with figures from seasonal influenza.
"This is like comparing apples with oranges," he said. Deaths from seasonal flu are based on statistical models whereas the deaths from the pandemic were confirmed one-by-one through laboratory tests and are much lower than the true number of total fatalities.
"The labelling of the pandemic as 'fake' is to ignore recent history and science and to trivialize the deaths of over 14,000 people and the many additional serious illnesses experienced by others," he concluded.
But Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, argued: We were told this was a 'flu which would threaten humanity, and millions would fall ill. This is why millions of dollars of medications were bought. The WHO basically held the trigger for the pandemic preparedness plans, they had a key role to play in deciding on the pandemic. Around 18 billion dollars was spent on this pandemic worldwide.
The definition of a pandemic was changed by the WHO last May. It was only this change of definition which made it possible to transform a run-of-the-mill 'flu into a worldwide pandemic - and made it possible for the pharmaceutical industry to transform this opportunity into cash, under contracts which were mainly secret.
Millions were vaccinated for no good reason. It is not even clear that the vaccine had a positive effect, because it was not clinically tested.
In my view, the WHO undertook an incomprehensible action, which cannot be justified by the scientific evidence. The Council of Europe should investigate this to see how WHO can undertake this kind of dangerous nonsense."
Dr Luc Hessel, speaking on behalf of European Vaccine Manufacturers, was at pains to deny such allegation. He said,The EVM rejects this motion, particularly the accusation of inappropriate response of vaccine manufacturers in their response to H1N1. The vaccine industry did what it was asked to do. The industry's role is to produce safe vaccines in a timely manner and respond to government's requests. It is governed by stringent international health regulations and rigorous safeguards against conflict of interest. Decision-making regarding vaccine needs can only be based on the best available data at the time.
The industry responded quickly effectively and was able to deliver the vaccines ordered by governments. Our industry responded to requests from WHO and governments who wanted to have fast access to a large quantity of vaccines. It is too early to speculate on the overall return for the industry, but in my view the industry has been a responsible and reliable partner.
Pandemic vaccines were properly developed and tested - for the first time in history, vaccines were available shortly after the declaration of a pandemic. This was only possible thanks to a decade of research and development and 60 years of experience.
Professor Dr Ulrich Keil, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Epidemiology at the University of Munster, pointed out that in Germany, about 10,000 deaths were attributed to seasonal 'flu, especially among older and frail people, but only a very small number of deaths, namely 187, could be attributed to the H1N1 virus in Germany - and many of those were dubious.
Charging that the WHO Director General had triggered a cascade of actions with his declaration of the pandemic, Dr.Keil said, "We are witnesssing a gigantic misallocation of resources in terms of public health. Governments and public health services are wasting huge amounts of money in investing in pandemic diseases whose evidence base is weak.
The Assembly may hold an urgent debate on the issue on Thursday and vote on a draft resolution.