Were Drug Companies Behind Swine Flu Panic?

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The swine flu thus far has not broken into the pandemic predicted. Were officials at the World Health Organization just being cautious in their dire warnings? Or was there something else driving the panic?

The Washington Post's Rob Stein writes Friday that two different reports in Europe have now "accused the [World Health Organization] of exaggerating the threat posed by the virus and failing to disclose possible influence by the pharmaceutical industry on its recommendations for how countries should respond." In plain English: the companies making the anti-flu drugs might have had a hand in fueling the public panic.

Fiona Godlee, the editor in chief of the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal (BMJ), which released one of the reports, lays out the concern. The public panic led governments to spend huge quantities of money to stockpile vaccines, while drug companies "banked vast profits--$7bn ... to $10bn from vaccines alone." BMJ and the Bureau of Investigative Journalists wanted to make sure, therefore, that WHO's "key decisions," which led to this development, "were free from commercial influence."

What they found suggested otherwise:

Some of the experts advising WHO on the pandemic had declarable financial ties with drug companies that were producing antivirals and influenza vaccines. As an example, WHO's guidance on the use of antivirals in a pandemic was authored by an influenza expert who at the same time was receiving payments from Roche, the manufacturer of oseltamivir (Tamiflu), for consultancy work and lecturing.  Although most of the experts consulted by WHO made no secret of their industry ties in other settings, WHO itself has so far declined to explain to what extent it knew about these conflicts of interest or how it managed them.

Godlee is most concerned about the "lack of transparency" seen in "a secret 'emergency committee,' which advised the director general Margaret Chan on when to declare the pandemic--a decision that triggered costly pre-established vaccine contracts around the world. Curiously, the names of the 16 committee members are known only to people within WHO."

Godlee isn't saying sinister forces must have been at work. She does, however, defend the right to ask "hard questions," one of which appears to be the following: is there a chance that warnings were exaggerated under the influence of commercial interests?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.