Swine Flu Didn’t Fly

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For makers of the swine flu vaccine, 2009 was a year to remember. By June, CSL Limited’s profits rose 63 percent above 2008 levels, while in the third quarter of 2009 – just about the time H1N1 contracts picked up steam – GlaxoSmithKine enjoyed a 30 percent jump in earnings to $2.19 billion. Roche, the maker of Tamiflu, which prevents H1N1, saw second quarter profits leap to 12 times what they were in that quarter of 2008. But in 2010, drug companies may get their comeuppance.

On Tuesday, the Council of Europe launched an investigation into whether the World Health Organization (WHO) “faked” the swine flu pandemic to boost profits for vaccine manufacturers. The inquiry, held in Strasbourg, France, vindicates a worldwide movement of insiders, experts and elected officials who accuse the United Nations organization of misleading the world into buying millions of unnecessary vaccines.

“I have never heard such a worldwide echo to a health political action,” said Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg, an epidemiologist who formerly led the health committee for the Council of Europe, at Tuesday’s hearing.

Also present was Dr. Ulrich Keil, director of the WHO’s Collaborating Centre for Epidemiology. Keil hammered his own organization and WHO flu chief, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, for “producing angst campaigns.”

“With SARS, with avian flu, always the predictions are wrong … Why don’t we learn from history?” Keil asked. “It [swine flu] produced a lot of turmoil in the pubic and was completely exaggerated “exaggerated” in contrast with all the really important matters we have to deal with in public health.”

Last year the WHO predicted that H1N1 could infect two billion and claim hundreds of thousands of lives, while President Obama’s science advisers said the outbreak could infect up to 120 million Americans and kill 90,000.

But in the end, H1N1 turned out to be one of the milder flu strains on record. The type-A influenza is confirmed to have taken around 14,000 lives worldwide, according to WHO numbers from January 22. The CDC said in December confirmed US deaths had reached 4,000, although it recently estimated that due to underreporting, the true death toll could be as high as 16,500 – a tragic sum, but less than half of what the CDC attributes to seasonal flu-related illness. In most of the northern hemisphere, hog flu has been on the decline for some ten straight weeks. New transmissions are largely contained to North Africa and South Asia, according to the WHO.

Throughout 2009, the WHO and domestic health agencies around the globe ignored mounting signs that swine flu wasn’t much of a killer, choosing instead to man the war bugles at full volume. The result was that governments poured tens of billions of dollars into vaccines. The US alone has spent $2 billion on the drugs and has allocated $7.5 billion in supplemental spending for H1N1 preparedness.

Now that the disease has petered out ahead of schedule, however, countries are stuck with millions of unused doses. French and German governments have had to cancel millions of orders of the vaccines due to falling demand and late-breaking news that European health authorities had recommended twice the necessary dosage. The CDC has dealt with the glut in another way. It now says all Americans should go and get the shot – a shift from its earlier recommendation that at-risk groups such as the young, sick, pregnant and nurses seek injections first. But why should everyone get a shot when that the disease appears to be over?

On January 22, the WHO issued a statement calling allegations that it irresponsibly stoked H1N1 fears, “scientifically wrong and historically incorrect.” The statement defends figures the WHO publicized on transmission rates, mortality and the virulence of swine flu.

“The world is going through a real pandemic. The description of it as a fake is wrong and irresponsible. We welcome any legitimate review process that can improve our work.”

Previously, the WHO had offered scant response to allegations of corruption, but deigned to defend itself after the Council of Europe meeting was announced. At the hearing, the WHO’s flu director, Dr. Fukuda, denied the accusations against the WHO. “Let me state clearly for the record – the influenza pandemic policies and responses recommended and taken by WHO were not improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry.”

The public meeting to examine accusations against WHO was set up by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which represents 800 million people in 47 countries. Established by various European nations in 1949 to promote human rights and the democratic rule of law, the Council’s January 26 meeting involved WHO officials, European drug makers and medical experts. PACE’s findings are expected to be announced January 29 and will likely be followed by an in-depth study and recommendations to European governments.

The PACE hearing is the latest in a series of investigations into the WHO’s propriety, which also includes a 2009 Danish Parliamentary inspection of links between WHO expert, Albert Osterhaus, and makers of the swine flu drugs. Russian lawmaker Igor Barinov has also started an inquiry into the WHO’s ties to H1N1 drug makers.

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