During the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, much criticism was leveled at health officials accusing them of making recommendations that were too heavily influenced by the pharmaceutical industry -- a refrain often heard in relation to diseases that are treatable with vaccines.
Turns out, that wasn't the case, according to independent experts who examined the World Health Organization's handling of the H1N1 pandemic, there was no such influence.
Back in June 2009, the WHO announced that the novel variant of the influenza virus had spread enough to raise the pandemic alert level from Phase 5 to Phase 6 -- the highest level -- for the first time in decades. By August 2010, the pandemic, which turned out to be less severe than had been feared, moved to post pandemic stage.
The independent experts who analyzed the WHO's response, said in a draft report released Thursday that "WHO performed well in many ways during the pandemic, confronted systemic difficulties and demonstrated some shortcomings. The Committee found no evidence of malfeasance."
Critics assert that WHO vastly overstated the seriousness of the pandemic. However, reasonable criticism can be based only on what was known at the time and not on what was later learnt. The Committee found that evidence from early outbreaks led many experts at WHO and elsewhere to anticipate a potentially more severe pandemic than subsequently occurred.
As far as the Review Committee can determine, no critic of WHO has produced any direct evidence of commercial influence on decision-making.
That being said, the panel added that the WHO failed to well-manage potential conflicts of interest among Emergency Committee members. Further, it ignored criticism about potential conflicts, and its decision to keep the members' identity secret, although consistent with WHO practices to protect members from external pressures, raised suspicions.
In addition, other shortcomings about the WHO's handling of the pandemic added to general confusion:
The absence of a consistent, measurable and understandable depiction of severity of the pandemic.
Inadequately dispelling confusion about the definition of a pandemic.
A pandemic phase structure that was needlessly complex.
Numerous systemic difficulties that impeded WHO's ability to achieve a timely distribution of donated vaccines.
What's perhaps most alarming is the final conclusion of the committee, which will hold its last meeting in Geneva from March 28 to March 30 to finalize its report: "The world is ill-prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global, sustained, and threatening public health emergency."
Meanwhile, a leading expert has warned in an article in the journal Nature that governments should launch a vaccination program now to guard against a possible H2N2 flu pandemic.
Vaccine makers such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Novartis (NVS), AstraZeneca (AZN) and Sanofi-Aventis (SNY) were major supplier of the pandemic vaccine, and their financial results got a significant boost as a result.
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