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World News

WHO denies drugs firms swayed its flu decisions

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) denied on Tuesday that it had fallen under the sway of drugs firms and exaggerated the dangers of the H1N1 flu virus, but said it might have handled the crisis better.

A woman reacts while receiving a vaccination against the H1N1 virus at a park in Cancun January 19, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer

Pharmaceutical companies picked up multi-million dollar vaccination contracts when the United Nations health agency declared the flu a pandemic last June.

Although millions around the world have been infected with H1N1, and many thousands have died, the pandemic proved milder than health experts had once feared, leaving many countries with an unwanted surplus of vaccines.

Critics say the WHO relied too much on advice from advisers in the pay of the pharmaceutical industry, triggering an internal review by the WHO and an inquiry by the Council of Europe, a pan European human rights watchdog.

The WHO’s top flu expert, Keiji Fukuda, told a hearing at the Council of Europe that although the organisation’s response to the virus was not perfect, it had not been bounced into the wrong decisions by the drugs giants.

“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,” Fukuda told the Strasbourg-based body.

Wolfgang Wodarg, a German doctor and former Social Democrat parliamentarian, told Tuesday’s hearing that the WHO had “sown panic” around the world by announcing a pandemic, raising fears that millions would die.

“This allowed the pharmaceutical industry to rake in very juiciy sales,” he said, estimating that public health bodies had wasted $18 billion on excessive stocks of vaccines.

GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis are among H1N1 vaccine producers.

SAFEGUARDS IN PLACE

Fukuda said the WHO had consulted a range of experts, including scientists working in the private sector, and had safeguards in place to protect against conflicts of interest.

“We are under no illusions that this response was the perfect response,” Fukuda told the hearing.

“But we do not wait until (these global virus outbreaks) have developed and we see that lots of people are dying. What we try and do is take preventive actions,” he added.

Accusations began circulating in British and French media in November that the H1N1 pandemic may have been “hyped” by health experts and medical researchers keen to boost study grants and line the pockets of drug companies.

The WHO said earlier this month that it would review the way it dealt with the flu outbreak, calling in independent outsiders to look at its workings.

Fukuda said the review would include scrutinising the way it classified virus outbreaks following widespread confusion over what the definition of “pandemic” actually meant.

By declaring the first influenza pandemic since 1968, the WHO was signalling the fact that the disease was spreading geographically, but was not indicating how virulent it was. Many non-experts saw the alert as a warning of widespread disaster.

“We will consider whether we can define things better, whether we can measure and report severity better,” he said.

Writing by Crispian Balmer in Paris and Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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