Two who helped WHO's pandemic response quit review panel

Jun 22, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – Two experts have resigned from the committee reviewing the World Health Organization's (WHO's) pandemic response because their involvement in the response itself may appear to compromise the independence of the review, the WHO said yesterday.

The two experts are Dr. John MacKenzie, an Australian virologist who chairs the WHO Emergency Committee, which has been advising the agency on its pandemic response, and Dr. Anthony Evans, chief of the aviation medicine section at the International Civil Aviation Association, based in Montreal.

"Two members have withdrawn from the committee due to their concerns that their close association with the work of WHO during the H1N1 pandemic could be perceived as inconsistent with the Committee's role in providing an independent evaluation of this work," the WHO said in an update on the pandemic review committee's work.

"Although no longer members of the committee, both Professor John MacKenzie and Dr. Tony Evans will continue to contribute to the work of the Review Committee when called upon to do so as expert witnesses," the WHO said.

The review committee was launched in April and assigned to evaluate the WHO's pandemic response and the functioning of the revised International Health Regulations (IHR), which took effect in 2007. The evaluation was started amid considerable criticism that the WHO and many governments overreacted to the H1N1 virus, along with suggestions from some quarters that the response was improperly influenced by pharmaceutical companies hoping to profit from the pandemic.

These criticisms were renewed early in June with an investigative report in BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, and a report from a committee of the Council of Europe, a human rights organization. Both raised questions about the WHO's transparency and its management of potential conflicts of interest in relation to the pandemic. The BMJ report noted that three WHO advisors who helped develop pandemic guidance had some industry ties, and also noted that MacKenzie, chair of the WHO Emergency Committee, was also on the committee reviewing the pandemic response.

In response to the criticisms, the WHO has strongly defended its pandemic response and denied any improper industry influence, but the agency has agreed that it needs to strengthen its policies on transparency and on relations with the pharmaceutical industry.

In noting the resignations of MacKenzie and Evans, the WHO did not refer to MacKenzie's leadership of the Emergency Committee or specify Evans' role in WHO activities related to the pandemic. The agency has kept the names of members of its Emergency Committee, other than MacKenzie, confidential to protect them from pressure, a policy that has drawn criticism. The names will be released after the panel's work is done, WHO officials have said.

The review committee will hold its second meeting Jun 30 through Jul 2 in Geneva, the WHO said. The panel will begin interviewing key people at that time, including government officials, WHO staff members, industry and media representatives, and critics, the agency said. Additional interviews will be conducted this summer and fall.

The review committee's five technical subcommittees held rounds of teleconferences early in May and again in early June, the agency said. The subcommittees are addressing pandemic capacity and preparedness, alert and risk assessment, and response. A fourth subcommittee is examining the functioning of the IHR, and the fifth subcommittee is studying communication issues related to both the pandemic and the IHR.

See also:

Jun 21 WHO update on the review committee

Jun 10 CIDRAP News story "WHO defends pandemic actions, says rules need tightening"

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

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