WHO pandemic review group concludes first session

Apr 15, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – A panel set up by the World Health Organization (WHO) to review its pandemic response spent the last day of its 3-day meeting yesterday hearing from an expert who denied charged that drug companies swayed response activities and said it may be premature to declare that the pandemic is over, according to media reports.

The chairman of the 29-person review panel, Dr Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine in the US National Academy of Sciences, also addressed the issue of bias among members of the review group.

The WHO convened the panel, which met in Geneva, in the wake of criticism from some elected officials and others that the WHO's actions and influence by pharmaceutical companies prompted governments to overact to the spread of the virus. The WHO and many public health experts have strongly rejected those accusations.

The group is reviewing the WHO's pandemic response within the framework of a broader assessment of the how International Health Regulations (IHR) functioned. The regulations, designed to guide responses to potential international health threats, took effect in 2007 and therefore had their first major test with the H1N1 pandemic.

The group heard from John Mackenzie, who heads the 15-member emergency committee that has advised the WHO's Director-General Dr Margaret Chan on pandemic matters, including the move to different pandemic alert phases. According to a report today from Reuters, he told that group that some people have the wrong impression of the pandemic's severity, which he said is as severe as the 1957 and 1968 pandemics, but has been lethal in younger age-groups.

He added that it will take at least a year or two after the pandemic to gauge the true number of deaths. So far the WHO has received about 17,000 fatality reports, a number it says greatly underestimates the true toll.

Mackenzie said health officials are watching to see how the Southern Hemisphere's flu season unfolds, according to the Reuters report. Most of those countries have seen only one wave of pandemic flu, while most Northern Hemisphere countries have seen two.

He also denied influence from drug companies. The Reuters story quoted him as saying, "I as chairman was not approached at any stage by the pharmaceutical industry. I don't know of any member being approached and I would very much doubt it."

The WHO has also faced accusations of bias among its expert groups. Fineberg said yesterday that the review group is still in the process of identifying bias and conflicts of interest among its 29 members, the Associated Press (AP) reported yesterday. He said the committee is composed of several public health experts who have been involved in a host of activities. Ten have advised the WHO before, and 24 members are government employees who may have played roles in pandemic planning and response.

Fineberg said the group is working to expose any conflicts of interest and recuse members from certain discussions when appropriate, the AP reported.

He also said the review panel would examine the possibility of including severity alongside geographic spread in its future disease phase descriptions, according to the AP.

The WHO has asked the review committee to prepare an interim report in time for the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May and a final report before the 2011 WHA.

See also:

Apr 15 Reuters story

Apr 12 CIDRAP News story "Expert panel begins review of WHO pandemic response"

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