WHO sets up external panel to review pandemic response

Mar 29, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – The World Health Organization (WHO) today said it is in the final stages of putting together an independent committee to review its preparation for and response to the H1N1 pandemic, a group of about 29 experts that will meet for the first time in the middle of April.

Keiji Fukuda, MD, special advisor on pandemic influenza to the WHO director-general, shared details about the review group with journalists in Geneva. The WHO posted an audio recording of the press conference on its Web site.

Fukuda said the independent review will parallel another review effort within the WHO that will examine pandemic response as part of a required evaluation of how the International Health Regulations (IHR) functioned during the outbreak. He said the H1N1 pandemic was the first major test of the IHR, which are an agreement outlining how governments should handle global health emergencies.

Fukuda and other WHO health officials have often said the group looks forward to the lessons learned from its pandemic response. "The bottom line is how we can do better with our preparations and response," he said.

The review's timing isn't a signal that the pandemic is over, he said. Instead, the review comes one year into the pandemic, when health officials have accumulated a lot of experience with the response and the actions are still fresh in people's memories.

Some elected officials and health ministers have criticized the response of the WHO and governments, claiming that health officials overreacted to the disease threat and were influenced by pressure from pharmaceutical companies to buy vaccine stockpiles. The WHO and health authorities from several countries have strongly denied the claims.

The Council of Europe (COE) has launched its own inquiry into the WHO and governmental pandemic responses, and today in Paris the social, health, and family affairs committee of the COE's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) held its second hearing on the issue. The COE, separate from the European Union, works on issues such as civil rights, economics, and democracy. The group was established after World War II and is made up of elected officials from 47 nations.

The WHO is still putting together the pandemic review group, which will have a broad range of expertise, including scientists and public health experts both inside and outside the infectious disease arena. Fukuda said that though the review group will operate independently from the WHO, members will be required, like the WHO's internal expert groups, to make declarations of interest and reveal potential conflicts of interest.

The group will hold its first meeting Apr 12 to 14. The committee will elect its own chair and cochair, set its own agenda, and seek out its own expert assessments. It will produce a preliminary report on its actions for the WHO director-general to present to the World Health Assembly in May.

Fukuda said the WHO anticipates that many countries will want to air their views with the new committee, and countries will have the opportunity to speak or submit written comments at the group's first meeting. Though there won't be a public gallery for the meetings, representatives from governments and other groups will be welcome to observe, and the WHO is still working out how to provide media access.

A final report on the WHO's pandemic response will likely be completed in time for the WHO director-general to present to the May 2011 World Health Assembly.

At today's COE hearing, Paul Flynn, a socialist member of the British Parliament, presented an initial inquiry report on the WHO's pandemic response. Flynn said the report reflects a recent meeting with Gillian Merron, Britain's public health minister. He said he will meet with WHO officials on Apr 15 to gather more information. COE said in a press release that the PACE committee will likely approve the report in late April, in advance of a possible debate on the topic in Strasbourg in June.

Today the committee focused on transparency issues related to the WHO and governmental pandemic responses. The group heard from Poland's health minister, Ewa Kopacz, about the country's decision not to buy pandemic vaccine.

Also on the agenda were Marc Gentilini, a member of France's National Academy of Medicine, who spoke on France's pandemic response; Dr Tom Jefferson, from the Cochrane Collaboration, who spoke on the use of scientific evidence when making flu-related decisions; and Michele Rivasi, a European Parliament member who is calling for that group to launch an inquiry. The European Parliament is an elected group and is one of the European Union's two legislative branches.

See also:

Jan 26 CIDRAP News story "European hearing airs WHO pandemic response, critics' charges"

Mar 29 WHO press conference transcript

Mar 29 video transcript of COE hearing and press conference

Mar 29 COE press release

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