Investigators find no impropriety in WHO's handling of H1N1 pandemic

Independent experts investigating the World Health Organization’s management of the response to the H1N1 pandemic recently announced that they found no evidence that the drug industry influenced the agency’s decision making over how to handle the virus.

In a draft report, the panel did acknowledge that the WHO failed to understand and respond to conflicts of interest among experts on its advisory Emergency Committee, which had previously acknowledged their pharmaceutical industry ties, according to Reuters.

The experts concluded that the body remains ill-prepared to face a similar public health crisis brought on by a significant influenza pandemic.

In June 2009, the WHO declared that the world was facing its first influenza pandemic in 40 years, caused by the H1N1 virus. In August 2010, it declared the pandemic over, stating that the global outbreak was less severe than was first believed.

Critics suggested that WHO was unduly influenced by the interests of pharmaceutical companies that stood to gain financially from the preparations involved in fighting a global outbreak, Reuters reports.

According to the panel, headed by American flu expert Dr. Harvey Fineberg, the critics have ignored the agency’s core mission to prevent disease and save lives.

"WHO performed well in many ways during the pandemic and confronted systemic difficulties and demonstrated some shortcomings," the panel said in a 33 page report, according to Reuters. "The committee found no evidence of malfeasance.

"As far as the Review Committee can determine, no critic of WHO has produced any direct evidence of commercial influence on decision-making."

The review committee, comprised of 27 experts, will convene its last meeting at the end of March and submit its report to the WHO’s annual ministerial meeting in May.

The WHO did not escape criticism for its handling of events. The panel pointed out the agency’s inconsistent and immeasurable system for judging a pandemic’s severity, which it says led to increased confusion. In response, the panel suggested a scale of three phases to measure the severity of a pandemic, as opposed to the current six phase system.

The panel also criticized the WHO bureaucracy for preventing the timely distribution of donated vaccines to poorer countries.

"The world is ill-prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global, sustained and threatening public health emergency," the panel concluded, Reuters reports.