The top United Nations flu official today rejected allegations that the World Health Organization (WHO) exaggerated the severity of the H1N1 influenza pandemic under pressure from business interests.
“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,” WHO Special Adviser on Pandemic Influenza Keiji Fukuda told a hearing at the Council of Europe.
Dr. Fukuda told the 2009 H1N1 pandemic inquiry that WHO takes its role of providing independent advice to its 193 Member States very seriously, and has in place measures to protect itself from improper influences.
After the agency received reports of the new human strain of the virus in April last year, laboratory testing confirmed that existing antibodies to the current human H1N1 viruses did not react to the new form, underscoring its potential to cause a pandemic.
“The most important information was when investigations indicated that this new virus was causing community outbreaks with person to person spread,” Dr. Fukuda told the Strasbourg-based Council.
“In Mexico, early outbreaks included deaths and severe respiratory illnesses requiring ventilators among previously healthy young people,” he added. “WHO took decisive actions in accordance with the International Health Regulations but did not announce the start of a pandemic until 11 June 2009 when the updated pandemic criteria were met.”
Stressing that the new virus spread with unprecedented speed, reaching 120 countries and territories in around eight weeks, Dr. Fukuda stated that cases have now been reported in virtually all countries.
“Numerous safeguards are in place to manage conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest among members of WHO advisory groups and expert committees,” he told the Council of Europe, which is tasked with protecting human rights, among other responsibilities.
With more than 14,000 laboratory-confirmed deaths reported to date, Dr. Fukuda warned that the pandemic is not over, adding that it would be misleading to compare this number with figures from seasonal influenza.
“This is like comparing apples with oranges,” he said. Deaths from seasonal flu are based on statistical models whereas the deaths from the pandemic were confirmed one-by-one through laboratory tests and are much lower than the true number of total fatalities.
“The labelling 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 concluded.