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.
The WHO's advice led governments worldwide to stockpile vast quantities of antivirals, and its decision to declare a pandemic in June 2009 triggered the purchase of billion 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, fueling suspicion that Big Pharma exerted undue influence on WHO decisions.
The 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.
The WHO has refused to identify committee members, arguing that they must be shielded from industry pressure.
"The WHO's credibility has been badly damaged," BMJ editor Fiona Godlee said in an editorial.
To repair that damage, the global health body must reveal the membership and any conflicts of interest of its emergency committee, and develop "stricter rules of engagement with industry that keep commercial influence away from its decision making," she said.