Scientists who advised the World Health Organization on its influenza policies and recommendations—including the decision to proclaim the so-called swine flu a "pandemic" had close ties to companies that manufacture vaccines and antiviral medicines like Tamiflu, a fact that WHO did not publicly disclose.
The links between the advisors and the companies that make money from vaccines and flu treatments were detailed in a report published online by the British medical journal BMJ, which investigated the advisors' role in WHO's policy.
The report by Deborah Cohen, features editor of BMJ, and Philip Carter, a journalist with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, acknowledged that flu experts do "need to work with industry to develop the best possible drugs for illnesses," but said that allowing industry experts to have a role in the formulation of public health policy was a slippery slope.
And worse, Cohen and Carter said, was the failure of WHO officials to disclose the conflicts of interest or even identify the members of its advisory committee.
In a statement, WHO's secretary-general Margaret Chan, MD, MPH, said the purpose of keeping the committee members anonymous "is to protect the integrity and independence of the members while doing this critical work — but also to ensure transparency by publicly providing the names of the members as well as information about any interest declared by them at the appropriate time."
And in the U.S. a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services defended WHO's handling of the pandemic.
"The WHO handled the outbreak in a very measured and appropriate manner," he said. "Their decisions were driven by the existing and evolving conditions at the time and what the best scientific information was telling us. It's very easy to look back through a 20-20 lens and essentially be an armchair quarterback."
Addressing the possibility of industry-influence on WHO's decisions, the spokesman said, "The WHO based its decisions on strong public health considerations and I don't think there was any indication from our perspective that their decisions were influenced by industry in any way."
The H1N1 pandemic, which will mark its one-year anniversary on June 11, "could, of course, have been far worse," Cohen and Carter wrote. "Planning for the worst while hoping for the best remains a sensible approach. But our investigation has revealed damaging issues. If these are not addressed, H1N1 may yet claim its biggest victim — the credibility of the WHO and the trust in the global public health system."
And the medical journal wasn't the only entity going on record with a critical assessment of WHO. A report from the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly published on the same day the BMJ report was released called into question WHO's handling of the H1N1 pandemic.
An official Council of Europe inquiry led by Paul Flynn, a British member of parliament, concluded that the "Parliamentary Assembly is alarmed about the way in which the H1N1 influenza pandemic has been handled, not only by the World Health Organization (WHO), but also by the competent health authorities at the level of the European Union and at national level."
World Health Organization and H1N1 Flu