Sunday, March 13, 2011

New report on a forgotten non-pandemic

There are certain things we know about the avian flu scare back in 2009. First, that the initial fears, amplified tremendously by the media, culminated in a non-pandemic. When the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that H1N1 was no longer a global health threat, the news appeared somewhere deep in the back pages of newspapers. Second, pharmaceutical companies made a massive amount of money by producing and distributing Tamiflu in vast quantities. Third, critics suspected the World Health Organization of being in the pockets of pharmaceutical interests by whipping up fears of mass infection and death on the one hand, and fully integrating private for-profit companies into the global response on the other. The fact that advisors to WHO's Emergency Committee had undeclared potential conflicts of interest with pharmaceutical firms did not help matters.

Last year, an International Health Regulations (IHR) Review Committee was convened, consisting of an independent panel of 25 experts, to examine the WHO's response to the avian flu threat. The draft report is now available online, and it seems somewhat unsatisfying to conspiracy theorists and defenders of the WHO alike. The Committee contends that while the WHO could have done a better job in managing apparent conflicts of interest among its advisors, there is no evidence that the advisors' judgments were adversely influenced by their drug company connections (though one wonders what would count as evidence). There is also no hard evidence that the WHO 'sexed up' the data on avian flu in order to make the epidemic appear more threatening; there was no way of knowing at the beginning that the rate of new infections would fizzle out rather than explode. The report is less about ethically criticizing the relationship between the WHO and big pharma, and more about practicalities of improving global pandemic response in the future. The avian flu scare exposed serious weaknesses in systems of global pandemic control. In other words, the IHR report seems to mimic the pattern of the 2009 avian flu scare: the prospect looks urgent and compelling at first, but on closer inspection, there seems to be less to meet the eye, at least from an ethical perspective.

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