WHO Releases H1N1 Emergency Committee Roster

Five of the 15 experts advising the WHO on H1N1 (swine flu) had ties to the pharmaceutical industry, “including for flu vaccine research,” according to the Emergency Committee members’ list released by the agency Wednesday, Agence France-Presse reports.

“The Emergency Committee provided expert advice to the WHO Director-General Margaret Chan about the new swine flu virus, allowing her to raise the alert when it was first uncovered in Mexico and the United States in April 2009,” and then again when the WHO declared H1N1 to be “a pandemic … in June 2009, triggering a chain of public health precautions including development and production of an influenza vaccine,” the AFP writes.

As the outbreak ran its course, “[c]ritics … raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest that might have helped the drugs industry influence decisions on huge orders for special vaccines against A(H1N1) flu,” the news service writes (8/11).

In June, a joint investigation between BMJ and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism called into question the WHO’s policy to maintain the anonymity of nearly all the emergency committee members and urged the agency to release the roster of the 15-member group. At the time, Chan responded that the names of the panel would remain confidential until the pandemic was over (Kaiser Daily Global Health Policy Report, 6/4). On Tuesday, the WHO officially announced the end of the H1N1 pandemic (Kaiser Daily Global Health Policy Report, 8/10).

Scientists, public health officials and epidemiologists from around world were among the 15 named on the WHO’s Emergency Committee list (undated). “Three members of the Emergency Committee … work at public health agencies in the United States and United Kingdom that have received research funding from pharmaceutical companies or their industry associations, and a fourth member had previously worked as a paid consultant for five different vaccine manufacturers,” the Toronto Sun reports (Smith, 8/11). The list names the CDC’s Flu Director Nancy Cox as a member of the committee.

The WHO list elaborates on the interests of experts on the panel, but also notes, “The interests summarized above do not give rise to a conflict of interest such that the experts concerned should be partially or totally excluded from participation in the emergency committee. However, following WHO’s policy, they were disclosed within the committee so that other members were aware of them” (undated).

Nature’s “The Great Beyond” blog reflects on some of the criticism the WHO received over their failures to release the names of the committee members earlier. “Neil Ferguson, an advisor to the committee named along with the members, told Nature, ‘I would have been perfectly happy for my name to be made public but I understand the reasons the WHO gave for keeping names confidential.’ … Ferguson, who works at the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at London’s Imperial College, adds, ‘The one lesson that perhaps should be learned is the conspiracy theories show the need for transparency in scientific committees.'” The blog also quotes another committee member, Arnold Monto from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, who said, “The lessons are that if possible, full disclosure is the appropriate way to go” (Cressey, 8/11). 

The KFF Daily Global Health Policy Report summarized news and information on global health policy from hundreds of sources, from May 2009 through December 2020. All summaries are archived and available via search.

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