Did WHO cry wolf with its swine flu alerts?

Scientists to investigate whether pharmaceutical giants have too great a Hold over World Health Org

BY Tim Edwards LAST UPDATED AT 16:29 ON Tue 30 Mar 2010

The World Health Organisation is to set up an independent panel to investigate charges that it exaggerated the impact of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic and is unduly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry.

The WHO's response to the H1N1 pandemic is already being scrutinised by the Council of Europe. In January, Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, an eminent epidemiologist, told the council that the WHO "in cooperation with some big pharmaceutical companies and their scientists re-defined pandemics and lowered the alarm threshold" so that governments would begin to order vaccines.

The WHO controversially changed the definition of a pandemic last June, allowing 'sleeping' vaccine supply contracts between pharmaceutical companies and governments to be activated. GlaxoSmithKlein is estimated to have made $1.7bn from sales of H1N1 vaccine sales in the fourth quarter of 2009 alone.

The new investigation will be made up of 29 experts nominated by WHO member states, and will meet in April - with the report being presented in May 2011. According to the WHO's flu expert Dr Keiji Fukuda, it will focus on "what is the best way to convey the magnitude of risk". He says that 'pandemic' was the correct way to describe the H1N1 outbreak, but that it may have caused confusion among some who are now accusing the WHO of overstating the risk.

He may have had in mind Paul Flynn, a Labour MP and the vice chair of the Council of Europe's health committee, who is himself preparing a report, a draft of which has been seen by the Guardian. In it, Flynn claims that by exaggerating the risk of H1N1, the WHO has undermined public trust so that next time a pandemic disease hits, people may not take it seriously and refuse to be vaccinated - a situation that could put the population as a whole at risk.

"In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health initially announced that around 65,000 deaths were to be expected," Flynn writes. "In the meantime, by the start of 2010, this estimate was downgraded to only 1,000 fatalities. By January 2010, fewer than 5,000 persons had been registered as having caught the disease and about 360 deaths had been noted."

More than 16,900 people have been confirmed as dying from swine flu worldwide, but the WHO claims the actual figure is likely to be many times higher. For comparison, normal, common-or-garden seasonal flu kills around 250,000 to 500,000 people globally every year.

But not everyone has it in for the WHO. Dr Alan Hampson, the chairman of Australia's Influenza Specialist Group, told the Sydney Morning Herald  that it "absolute nonsense" that the world overreacted to the H1N1 outbreak. Indeed, he said, millions of Australians were still vulnerable.

However, the groups he said are most at risk - pregnant women, people over 65, those with chronic medical conditions - are not the 'young people' the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sensationally claimed last May were most prone to H1N1.

Whether or not the WHO and big pharma are at fault, the pandemic is not yet officially over and new cases continue to be reported. Southeast Asia and Central and South America have all seen increased swine flu activity, according to Dr Fukuda.

Southern states of the United States have also seen a surge in H1N1 cases in the past month, with Georgia recording 40 hospitalisations last week - a return to levels not seen since last October's peak. Concern is such that the Kentucky Department of Health has released a video (above) portraying those who question the necessity of being vaccinated against H1N1 as conspiracy theorists.

The American National Center for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases has announced that H1N1 is to be incorporated into the 2010-11 seasonal flu vaccine - a more measured response, perhaps, than in 2009 and one that Dr Wodarg said should have been followed in the first place. · 

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