Friday, June 4, 2010

Investigations: WHO H1N1 Advisors Had Pharma Conflicts

The World Health Organization lacked transparency in its handling of the H1N1 flu outbreak last year and is not being forthcoming about widespread conflict of interest among its medical advisors, who enjoyed close ties to pharmaceutical companies that stood to gain from the experts' advice, according to this interesting investigation by the British Medical Journal and the UK's Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The report comes out just as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issues a separate report also criticizing the WHO's handling of the H1N1 outbreak. It denounced the "unjustified scare" caused by the WHO and the waste of public money on fighting the relatively mild flu. "This was the pandemic that never really was," said one European official. The report also slammed the WHO for "grave shortcomings" in its transparency about the affair.

Now, here's the question I have yet to see addressed in any of the reporting about all this fallout: Will the media organizations that uncritically reported on the scary pronouncements of public-health officials last year look into their own journalistic practices? Hmm, I somehow doubt it. As I noted in this post last November, I don't think I've seen any major story so poorly reported since the drumbeat to war before the 2003 attack on Iraq. And even in the Iraq coverage, most of the reporting at least made a stab at balance by allowing some space - if only at the bottom of the article - for a dissenting voice about the Bush administration's case for going to war. Not so during the H1N1 scare.

But I digress. Back to the BMJ/Bureau investigation. It raises questions about the lack of safety testing of the H1N1 flu vaccine. It also questions the WHO's prediction of 2 billion likely H1N1 cases, which it says had no scientific basis - an estimate widely accepted by journalists and maintained even after a relatively benign flu season in Australia. The health body also substantially loosened the definition of a "pandemic," which previously had been declared only when an outbreak had caused "enormous" death. The WHO labeled H1N1 a pandemic even though the death toll ended up being less than that of a normal flu season.

"Our investigation has identified key scientists involved in WHO pandemic planning who had declarable interests, some of whom are or have been funded by pharmaceutical firms that stood to gain from the guidance they were drafting. Yet these interests have never been publicly disclosed by WHO and, despite repeated requests from the BMJ/The Bureau, WHO has failed to provide any details about whether such conflicts were declared by the relevant experts and what, if anything, was done about them," the BMJ feature reports.

In this accompanying editorial, the BMJ says the WHO and other medical bodies must not only declare conflicts but also go further and eliminate them.

To read more Investigate This! coverage of the H1N1 story, see these blog items (here, here and here) and these pieces I did for The Georgia Straight on the H1N1 vaccine and correlations between H1N1 cases and pig farming (here and here).

TAGS: H1N1, health

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