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Politician accuses drug companies of overplaying dangers of H1N1

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c198 (Published 12 January 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c198
  1. Rory Watson
  1. 1Brussels

    Drug companies are being accused of unnecessarily raising fears over the H1N1 swine flu virus so as to increase profits by boosting sales of their new vaccines.

    The allegations, made in the parliamentary assembly of the Strasbourg based Council of Europe, are surfacing as several countries, notably the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, are looking to dispose of excess supplies of the unwanted vaccines (BMJ 2010;340:c170, 11 Jan, doi:10.1136/bmj.c170).

    Wolfgang Wodarg, a German Social Democrat MP and chairman of the assembly’s health subcommittee, is, with the support of a cross party group of Council of Europe parliamentarians, pressing for a pan-European investigation into the role of the companies in the current pandemic.

    “We have twice had major alarms. The first was with bird flu, and now this. It looks like a big marketing campaign for extra profits and costs health authorities a lot of money,” he said.

    The resolution that Dr Wodarg and his supporters have presented to the parliamentary assembly notes that “to promote their patented drugs and vaccines against flu, pharmaceutical companies have influenced scientists and official agencies, responsible for public health standards, to alarm governments.”

    It continues: “They have made them squander tight healthcare resources for inefficient vaccine strategies and needlessly exposed millions of healthy people to the risk of unknown side effects of insufficiently tested vaccines.”

    Senior members of the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly will decide later this month whether to accept the request for an investigation. Although the institution has no legal powers (unlike the European Union parliament) and may only invite witnesses rather than force them to attend, Dr Wodarg believes an inquiry would provide a useful platform to establish how the 47 member states of the Council of Europe have approached the pandemic threat.

    Inquiries can also attract considerable media attention, as occurred last year when the assembly conducted a high profile investigation into the controversial US policy of rendition of terrorist suspects.

    In addition to the growing pressure for a formal examination of the role of drug companies in the current pandemic, demands were tabled by the assembly’s social, health, and family affairs committee last month for an urgent debate on the issue. If, as is likely, these are accepted, the debate could take place on 28 January at the assembly’s next plenary meeting in Strasbourg.

    Moves are also under way to organise a hearing the same week, involving senior representatives from the drug industry and the World Health Organization. The hearing will probably be held in private.

    Zsuzsanna Jakab, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, who is about to take up a role in the World Health Organization, has repeatedly emphasised the need for strong precautionary measures.

    Shortly before Christmas she told European health ministers: “Given the significant risks to health from the pandemic, ECDC would strongly advise all those Europeans who are offered the vaccine to be vaccinated.”

    A GlaxoSmithKline spokesperson described the allegations of undue influence as “misguided and unfounded” and added: “WHO declared that H1N1 swine flu met the criteria for a pandemic. Responding to it has required unprecedented collaboration. As WHO have stated, legal regulations and numerous safeguards are in place to manage possible conflicts of interest.”

    Commenting on the criticism, a WHO spokesperson said that providing independent advice to governments was a very important function for the organisation: “We take this work seriously and guard against the influence of any vested interests. We welcome any legitimate review process that can improve our work.”

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c198

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