Top UN health official refutes conflict of interest claims in handling of H1N1 pandemic

Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization

8 June 2010 – The head of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today spoke out against accusations that the agency bowed to pressure from pharmaceutical companies in its handling of the H1N1 pandemic.

An editorial by the British Medical Journal questions the objectivity of WHO’s decisions regarding the influenza, citing that it had been advised by experts on the pandemic who were also on the payrolls of drug companies.

In response, Director-General Margaret Chan acknowledged that “potential conflicts of interest are inherent in any relationship between a normative and health development agency, like WHO, and profit-driven industry.”

She noted that WHO is in the process of establishing and enforcing stricter rules of engagement with the private sector, but stressed that “at no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making.”

Rather, the decisions to raise the level of pandemic alert, Dr. Chan underlined, were based only clearly defined virological and epidemiological criteria. “It is hard to bend these criteria, no matter what the motive.”

She also countered claims that WHO changed the definition of a pandemic to benefit the pharmaceutical industry, noting that the current pandemic preparedness plan – which defines phases of pandemics – was finalized before a new strain of H1N1 was even on the horizon.

The WHO chief said that she is taking criticism levelled against the agency by the media seriously. She has called for a “critical, independent and transparent” assessment of its performance, having called for the creation of a review committee which began its work in April.

She also refuted the implication in the editorial that “WHO provoked unjustified fear,” emphasizing that “the record is otherwise and not a matter of interpretation.”

Dr. Chan said that when announcing the start of the H1N1 pandemic last June, she made sure to underscore that the number of deaths worldwide was small.

“In every assessment of the pandemic, WHO consistently reminded the public that the overwhelming majority of patients experienced mild symptoms and made a rapid and full recovery, even without medical treatment,” she said.


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