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Facing Inquiry, WHO Strikes Back at "Fake Pandemic" Swine Flu Criticism

<p>Sarah Blackford</p>

Sarah Blackford

The chief flu scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO) today defended his agency against criticism that the H1N1 swine flu pandemic was "fake," that its threat to human health was hyped, and that WHO's policies were influenced by vaccine manufacturers who benefited from the pandemic virus. The idea that H1N1 outbreak is not a pandemic is "scientifically wrong and historically inaccurate," WHO's Keiji Fukuda told reporters during a press conference.

With H1N1 apparently on the decline, and the damage much less severe than once feared, many countries are canceling part of their vaccine orders while others are trying to resell unused stocks. As a result, national governments and WHO have come under scrutiny for the way they handled the pandemic.

WHO's chief accuser of late is Wolfgang Wodarg (pictured above left), a German physician and former member of the German Parliament for the Social Democratic Party, who has called the pandemic a "fake"—because the virus isn't very different from existing strains—and who has suggested that big pharma coaxed WHO into declaring a pandemic so that it could produce and sell vaccine. "WHO in cooperation with some big pharmaceutical companies and their re-defined pandemics and lowered the alarm-threshold," Wodarg says in a statement on his Web site.

Wodarg—whose resume says he studied medicine in Berlin and Hamburg and was trained in epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University—is also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and on 18 December he and other members of that group's Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee signed a motion that bluntly stated:

In order to promote their patented drugs and vaccines against flu, pharmaceutical companies have influenced scientists and official agencies, responsible for public health standards, to alarm governments worldwide. They have made them squander tight health care resources for inefficient vaccine strategies and needlessly exposed millions of healthy people to the risk of unknown side-effects of insufficiently tested vaccines.

The Council of Europe is a 47-member organization, unrelated to the European Union, that focuses on promoting human rights and democracy across the continent. Wodarg's motion has been widely covered in the European media, but it's unclear whether it enjoys widespread support. It was signed by only 14 members of the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee, which has almost 100 members, and was not discussed within that panel.

On its Web site, the Parliamentary Assembly also announces that the topic of "Fake pandemics, a threat to health" will become a prominent discussion topic during its winter session, held from 25–29 January in Strasbourg, France. During a closed-door session on 26 January, members will hear WHO representatives, the pharmaceutical industry, and experts, according to the Web site, but the scope of the inquiry is as yet unclear.

Fukuda today said WHO is happy to testify. But he fiercely denied allegations that the agency has hyped the threat or was influenced by pharmaceutical companies. Early on, WHO stressed that the pandemic was "moderately severe," Fukuda said, but that precautions should be taken for the worst. "We have worked very hard to reduce confusion rather than create it," Fukuda said. He also said that WHO has long-standing conflict-of-interest practices that prevent manufacturers from weighing in on policy decisions. "Has the WHO been influenced by industry? The answer is no," Fukuda said.

As to Wodarg's claim that the pandemic definition was changed to hasten the declaration of a pandemic, Fukuda said that the agency's six-phase alert system was refined a number of times over the years in consultation with scientists, but this did not happen during the pandemic. Actually, WHO was castigated last year for dragging its feet on the pandemic declaration; that didn't come until 11 June, months after many said a pandemic was inevitable.

In an interview with the French communist magazine l'Humanité (English translation), Wodarg says he also wants to study the role of scientific organizations like the French Pasteur Institute or the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, which he says should have advised their governments more critically about the decision to purchase vaccines. "In some countries, the institutes did just that," he says. "In Finland or Poland, for example, critical voices were raised to say: "We don't need that."

Fukuda says that the International Health Regulations—a new set of rules to deal with outbreaks that entered into force in 2007—require a review of how his agency handled the situation as well. That study will be carried with the help of independent experts and the results will be made public, he promised.