WHO hits back over H1N1 conflict of interest claims

Earlier this week, the head of the World Health Organization defended her body's response to the swine flu outbreak, rejecting accusations made recently in a BMJ report that commercial interests influenced its decision-making. "At no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making," Director-General Margaret Chan said in a statement Tuesday, as quoted by the Globe and Mail.

Her comments came after the publication of a BMJ report that pointed out three scientists at the WHO received payments from Roche and GlaxoSmithKline, manufacturers of antiviral drugs, and also helped prepare pandemic guidelines in 2004 that included the use of antivirals. The WHO failed to disclose their conflicts of interests, the journal stated. The journal also asked why the names of those who sit on the emergency committee and advise Dr. Chan aren't public.

BMJ editor Fiona Godlee questioned the WHO's credibility, adding, "Recovery will be fastest if it publishes its own report without delay or defensive comment; makes public the membership and conflicts of interest of its emergency committee; and develops, commits to, and monitors stricter rules of engagement with industry that keep commercial influence away from its decision making."

Firing back, Chan maintained that BMJ pieces give the clear impression that the WHO's declaration of the pandemic was influenced to some degree by a desire to boost the pharmaceutical industry--a charge she adamantly denies. "The bottom line, however, is that the decisions to to raise the level of pandemic alert were based on clearly defined virological and epidemiological criteria," she writes, as quoted by a Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy report. "It is hard to bend these criteria, no matter what the motive."

She added that the names of members on the emergency committee will be made public once their work is completed, and that the reason not to identify them beforehand is to protect them from commercial or other influences.

Separately, Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the agency, told Medscape Medical News that the body committed an oversight when it failed to disclose conflicts of interest for scientists who have advised it on pandemic influenza policies. "It was an oversight," said Hartl. "If we were using today's practices, we would have published the summary for the relevant interests. The way we handle [declarations of interest] is a work in progress."

- see the Globe and Mail's take
- check out CIDRAP's coverage
- get the Medscape article