WHO flu experts' ties to Roche, GSK kept secret

Transparency is a watchword these days. Almost everyone--from drugmakers to the National Institutes of Health to teaching hospitals--is rolling out information about the financial ties among industry, physicians and academia. So why not the WHO?

That's the question the British Medical Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism are asking. The impetus: A joint investigation that revealed some flu experts who helped WHO draw up plans for dealing with pandemic flu had been paid consultants to Roche and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK). They are, of course, the two companies that happen to make the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, which governments around the world stockpiled to prepare for an influenza stampede.

The BMJ authors want to know why those ties weren't disclosed. And they question the WHO's policy of keeping the names of its key flu committee secret. How can potential conflicts of interest even be assessed?

"The investigation reveals a system struggling to manage the inherent conflict between the pharmaceutical industry, WHO, and the global public health system, which all draw on the same pool of scientific experts," the BMJ article states. A Roche official cited the "limited number of people" who have the depth of experience with flu that everyone wants to tap; "It's not surprising that we are going to be seeking advice from the same groups of people," he said.

WHO says it's confident that it was free of "undue influence" when it drafted its pandemic guidance. And it defends its practice of keeping panel members' identities secret, saying that it's this very secrecy that helps shield them from pressure. "We have to protect the neutrality of this advice," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl tells Bloomberg.

The BBC, on the other hand, notes that simple disclosure would go a long way. Sure, everyone has to consult with a small pool of top flu experts, the news service states. But failing to disclose those relationships is a mistake: It just provides fuel to "critics and conspiracy theorists."

- see the BMJ piece
- read the Bloomberg piece
- get more from the BBC