WHO finally coughs up flu committee’s identity and conflicts of interest

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Back in June I wrote a blog piece about the World Health Organization. This supposedly august body has come in for some sharp criticism in the form of a couple of pieces on the British Medical Journal. Specifically, the WHO was accused of being influenced by financial conflicts of interest in the handling of the ‘great flu pandemic of 2009’ that never was. It turns out that key advice was authored by an ‘influenza expect who had received payment for [other] work from Roche, manufacturers of oseltamivir, and GlaxoSmithKline, manufacturers of zanamivir’ (oseltamivir and zanamivir are drugs used to treat flu). Plus, the identity of the members that served on the committee that advised on the handling of the flu ‘pandemic’ remained shrouded in secrecy.

Well, finally, the WHO has done the decent thing and let it be known who the other members of the relevant committee were. This, at the very least, gives those of independent mind an opportunity to assess whether other conflicts of interest were present, and also to make a judgment on whether this may have influenced WHO policy.

I have to say, I find the idea that the WHO would not be utterly transparent on this matter from the outset quite worrying. Why the need for such opacity? One gets the impression that if it hadn’t been for the bringing to bear of some political pressure, the WHO would have happily withheld this information. In other words, the WHO appears content to let global health policy to be set by a largely anonymous committee. I don’t think I’d be the only one to regard this is as intrinsically wrong.

Anyway, you can see a list of the committee members it seems the WHO wanted to keep a secret here.

The committee was made up of 15 members, and received advice from one advisor too. Of this total of 16 people, five declared past or current past or current support from pharmaceutical firms.

Here’s what the WHO has to say about these conflicts of interest.

The interests summarized above do not give rise to a conflict of interest such that the experts concerned should be partially or totally excluded from participation in the Emergency Committee. However, following WHO’s policy, they were disclosed within the Committee so that other members were aware of them. All other Members of the Emergency Committee declared no relevant interests.

Well, of course that bit about the conflicts of interest not really mattering is very much a matter of opinion. I personally don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the WHO to take its advice from individuals who are genuinely independent from the industry. And if the WHO can’t manage that, then at least be transparent about potential conflicts of interest in a timely matter, not so long after events as to make providing such information virtually worthless.

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