First Meeting Of WHO H1N1 Response Probe Concludes

The first meeting of external experts tasked with reviewing the WHO’s handling of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus came to a close Wednesday, with health leaders maintaining it was still too early to declare the pandemic over, Agence France-Presse reports.

“John Mackenzie, the head of the panel advising the WHO on flu and pandemic alerts, told the probe [panel] that the alert should not be wound down” until experts had the opportunity to track the progression of the virus “in the south’s traditional autumn and winter flu seasons over the coming months,” the news service writes (Capella, 4/15). The group is expected to reconvene “in two or three weeks to advise WHO Director-General Margaret Chan on whether the world has moved to a post-peak phase” of H1N1, Reuters writes (Nebehay, 4/14).

Mackenzie, whose “committee played a crucial role in recommending an international emergency over the new virus and different stages of alert, including the declaration of a pandemic,” defended the process used to “ramp up the alert level and maintain the pandemic status” of H1N1, AFP adds (4/15).

The Associated Press reports: “Faced with persistent criticism over its handling of the pandemic, WHO convened the panel Monday with instructions to conduct a ‘credible and independent review’ of how the global body and national authorities responded to the outbreak. Critics say many panelists are trusted WHO advisers and government employees who could end up whitewashing any failures.”

The chair of the review panel, Harvey Fineberg, head of the U.S. Institute of Medicine, said, “We are actually still in the process of identifying all the possible sources of bias. This is a committee that is composed of a lot of individuals who have done a lot of things in public health” (Jordans, 4/14).

After the three-day panel meeting, Fineberg said, “‘We’re not here to defend or prosecute the WHO, that’s not our job, we want find out what are … the lessons we can learn,’ to ‘improve’ the response,” AFP reports (4/15).

“At least ten panelists flown in by WHO [for the three-day meeting] are past or current advisers to the organization,” and “[t]wenty four members of the panel are government employees,” the AP notes. “All were selected by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan from among a roster of 200 experts proposed by the governments they are also meant to scrutinize,” and WHO documents show “at least seven panelists contributed to the guidelines on pandemic phases.”

“‘If most of these experts were part of the expert group that developed the WHO pandemic alert phase system, then this panel will simply be a whitewashing panel,’ said James Chin, a retired professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley and former WHO official who fell out with the global body over its HIV and AIDS policies,” the AP writes (Jordans, 4/14).

Also during the meeting Wednesday, “[l]eading experts involved in the World Health Organisation’s decision to declare a flu pandemic … rejected accusations of undue influence from the pharmaceutical industry,” AFP/Independent reports. “The heads of panels of scientists advising the agency on vaccines and the alert said ‘meticulous care’ was taken to avoid conflicts of interest and to keep a distance from industry as far as possible” (4/15). The review panel plans to hold meetings in late-June and September to discuss the results of their findings, VOA News adds (Schlein, 4/14).

“The issue of [the] severity [of H1N1], the equity of the response for rich and poor countries, and flu communications were among the core issues raised by the 29 strong review panel in its first public discussions,” the AFP writes (4/15).

Kenya To Offer H1N1 Vaccine To Over 100K Health Workers

In related news, Capital News reports the plans by Kenya’s government to vaccinate 110,000 health workers against H1N1 over the next two weeks. According to Kenya’s Public Health Minister Beth Mugo, the country has received 730,000 doses of H1N1 vaccines, syringes and other supplies from the WHO (Wambui, 4/14).

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