Keiji Fukuda, special adviser on pandemic influenza to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director-general, told a hearing at the Council of Europe that WHO’s response to the influenza (H1N1) pandemic was not improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. The Council, which represents 47 member countries, held the hearing to address concerns over WHO’s reaction to the pandemic. The H1N1 pandemic has been milder than health experts initially had feared, prompting accusations that WHO’s response was tainted by the recommendations of advisers with vested interests in pharmaceutical companies.
During the hearing, the European Vaccine Manufacturers group rejected claims that vaccine producers behaved inappropriately during the response to H1N1 swine-flu outbreak. The group said that vaccine manufacturers had, in fact, responded to the requirements of public-health authorities and national governments.
Fukuda said that cooperation with various partners, including some from the private sector, is essential to WHO’s ability to address public-health challenges. He said that the organization uses various safeguards to manage real or perceived conflicts of interest among members of WHO advisory groups and expert committees. Fukuda noted that experts declare their financial and professional interests to WHO as one safeguard. He stressed that WHO takes allegations of conflicts of interest seriously and expressed his confidence in the scientific validity of the body’s decision-making during the influenza pandemic.
During his closing remarks, Fukuda said that the influenza pandemic was a “scientifically well-documented event in which the emergence and spread of a new influenza virus has caused an unusual epidemiological pattern of disease throughout the world.” WHO did not declare a pandemic arbitrarily or for polemical purposes, he added. “The labeling of the pandemic as ‘fake’ is to ignore recent history and science and to trivialize the deaths of over 14,000 people and the many additional serious illnesses experienced by others,” he said.
WHO’s 2009 pandemic-preparedness plan was an updated version of its first such document, which the organization drafted in 1999. Stressing the effort WHO put into the plan, Fukuda said that the plan included contributions from more than 135 public-health scientists from 48 countries. A request for public comments on the draft document yielded more than 600 replies.
WHO received its first reports of H1N1 in April 2009 and conducted laboratory testing on the virus. WHO did not announce the start of a pandemic until June 2009, after the virus had met its updated pandemic criteria.
Acknowledging questions about WHO’s performance, Fukuda said at a press conference on Jan. 14, 2010 that the organization would be conducting a self-review. He said that WHO had acted under the International Health Regulations, which call for an evaluation of how well the regulations have been implemented. “WHO will use this opportunity to begin an evaluation of its own performance,” Fukuda said.