Independent experts who examined the World Health Organisation’s handling of the H1N1 pandemic said on Thursday they had found no evidence of drug industry influence on the U.N. agency’s decision-making in the crisis.
But in a draft report made public, the panel said WHO had failed to recognize and manage conflicts of interest among some experts on its advisory Emergency Committee who had disclosed their ties to pharmaceutical companies.
The world remains “ill-prepared” to face a severe influenza pandemic or similar public health emergency, the experts added.
The United Nations agency announced in June 2009 that the newly-emerged H1N1 swine flu virus was causing the world’s first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years. It declared the pandemic over in August 2010, saying that the global outbreak had turned out to be much less severe than was feared.
“WHO performed well in many ways during the pandemic and confronted systemic difficulties and demonstrated some shortcomings,” the panel said in a 33-page report. “The Committee found no evidence of malfeasance.”
“As far as the Review Committee can determine, no critic of WHO has produced any direct evidence of commercial influence on decision-making,” it added.
Critics who have suggested ‘invisible commercial influences’ may account for WHO’s actions ignored the agency’s core public health values to prevent disease and save lives, according to the panel headed by American flu expert Dr. Harvey Fineberg.
The Review Committee, composed of 27 experts, holds its last meeting in Geneva on March 28-30 to finalize its report which is to be submitted to WHO’s annual ministerial meeting in May.
The panel criticised the WHO’s lack of a consistent and measurable description for judging a pandemic’s severity which had created confusion. It suggested a scale of three phases rather than the current six-phase scale which is under revision.
WHO bureaucracy had also prevented a timely distribution of donated vaccines in poor countries during the pandemic, it said.
GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi-Aventis are among major producers of influenza vaccines.
“The world is ill-prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global, sustained and threatening public health emergency,” it said, citing the risk of massive disruption, suffering and loss of life.