Council of Europe launches investigation into H1N1 pandemic

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 01 February 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c641
  1. Rory Watson
  1. 1Brussels

    A Europe wide investigation will begin this week into the World Health Organization’s decision to label the outbreak of swine flu a “pandemic,” amid allegations that it did so under pressure from drug companies looking to boost demand for their vaccines.

    The inquiry, launched by the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, will be led by the British Labour MP Paul Flynn and could be concluded as early as June.

    Speaking after being appointed to the role, Mr Flynn said that he wanted to establish how WHO had assessed the risks from the new virus and to identify the factors that led the organisation to classify the health threat as a pandemic.

    “Was the decision taken on objective, independent medical grounds or was it influenced by the imperative of drug companies looking for a return on their investment?” he asked.

    The 47 countries represented in the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly gave the formal go-ahead to the investigation on 29 January after the Strasbourg based organisation’s social, health, and family affairs committee had held a two hour public hearing on the issue three days earlier.

    Wolfgang Wodarg, a former German MP and specialist in epidemiology, told the hearing that the public had been warned that millions of people would fall ill with the flu. “WHO basically held the trigger for the pandemic preparedness plans. It had a key role to play in deciding on the pandemic. Around $18bn [£11.3bn; €13bn] was spent on the pandemic worldwide,” he said.

    Responding to the criticism, Keiji Fukuda, a special adviser on pandemic flu to WHO’s director general, insisted that the organisation stood by the scientific validity of its recommendations and denied that its independence had been compromised by outside pressure.

    He said, “The flu pandemic policies and responses were not improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. Cooperation with a range of partners, including the private sector, is necessary, but numerous safeguards are in place to avoid conflicts of interest.”

    Luc Hessel, representing European vaccine manufacturers, rejected claims that drug companies had helped fuel fears over the virus and maintained that the “industry responded quickly and effectively and was able to deliver the vaccines ordered by governments.”

    During his investigation Mr Flynn will question WHO about its procedures and examine how different governments reacted to the warnings. “Poland probably did the least and the United Kingdom the most, but the outcome in the two countries was not that different,” he said.

    He will also look to establish the extent to which the public’s trust in WHO has been damaged by its handling of the H1N1 outbreak. Similarly dire warnings, which critics believe were exaggerated, were made over severe acute respiratory syndrome and avian flu.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c641