WHO posts list of pandemic flu advisors with industry ties

Kathlyn Stone
Flesh and Stone

(Aug. 12)  After months of criticism that threatened its credibility, the World Health Organisation has released a list of the 15 international members of the Emergency Committee that advised the WHO on last year’s H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic alerts. Five of the expert advisers had received financial support from the pharmaceuticals industry, including for flu vaccine research. The WHO posted the list on its website for the first time on Wednesday.

Among those listed were Nancy Cox, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Influenza Division, who disclosed financial support from the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), a pharmaceutical trade group. IFPMA funded flu vaccine and virus research in the Influenza Division, according to the disclosure list.

U.S. professor Arnold Monto declared current and past consultancies on pandemic or seasonal influenza research for GSK, Novartis, Roche, Baxter and Sanofi Pasteur. Monto’s research unit at the University of Michigan also declared a grant from Sanofi for a clinical trial comparing the efficacy of inactivated and live attenuated influenza vaccines.

John Wood’s research unit at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC), part of the UK Health Protection Agency, performed contract research for Sanofi Pasteur, CSL, IFPMA, Novartis and Powdermed on influenza vaccine research and development.

Related: WHO committee had financial ties to GlaxoSmithKline and Roche when it issued flu pandemic guidelines

Professor Maria Zambon’s laboratory at the UK Health Protection Agency Centre for Infection received funding from vaccine manufacturers, including Sanofi, Novartis, CSL, Baxter and GSK, according to the disclosure.

British professor Neil Ferguson, an advisor to the panel, had acted as a consultant for Roche and GSK Biologicals until 2007.

Australian tropical diseases professor John Mackenzie, chair of the advisory committee, was the only expert publicly named during the outbreak. Mackenzie had no industry relationships to disclose.

The Emergency Committee had representation from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin and North America. It included experts in public health, epidemiology, scientific research, diplomacy and international air travel. Claude Thibeault serves as the consultant medical advisor to the International Air Transport Association.

A report by the BMJ and an investigation by an EU parliamentary body over the handling of the H1N1 flu outbreak have called WHO’s credibility into question. Some critics suggest pharmaceutical manufacturers may have influenced the pandemic response and faulted the WHO for lack of transparency in identifying the decision-makers.

The WHO has stated repeatedly that the panel members’ identities were kept secret to protect them from outside pressure during the H1N1 flu outbreak. “The interests summarized above do not give rise to a conflict of interest such that the experts concerned should be partially or totally excluded from participation in the Emergency Committee,” the WHO states on its website.

The WHO raised the alarms after the (A)H1N1 strain was detected in North America in spring 2009. The designation of H1N1 as a global “pandemic” and an urgent health threat spurred many nations to provide financial support for accelerated vaccine development; purchase vaccines in quantities capable of vaccinating entire populations; and stockpile large quantities of antiviral drugs. When the virus turned out to be much less of a health threat than predicted, governments were left with large quantities of unused and costly drugs.

“WHO basically held the trigger for the pandemic preparedness plans,” said German epidemiologist and former MP Wolfgang Wodarg. “It had a key role to play in deciding on the pandemic. Around $18bn (£11.3bn; €13bn) was spent on the pandemic worldwide.”

Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, announced on Tuesday that the A(H1N1) influenza pandemic was officially over. WHO estimates that more than 18,500 people died from the outbreak. About 300 million people were vaccinated against H1N1 worldwide.

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