WHO’s Flu Advisors Got Payments From Roche, Glaxo, Report Finds

Experts who received money from Roche Holding AG and GlaxoSmithKline Plc also served as consultants to the World Health Organization in drawing up plans for dealing with pandemic influenza, the British Medical Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported.

The flu expert who recommended using and stockpiling antiviral drugs received payments from Roche, which makes the best-selling antiviral Tamiflu, for lecturing and consulting work when the guidance was produced and published in 2004, according to the report published today in the BMJ. He had also received payments from Glaxo, maker of the second best-selling flu drug Relenza, until 2002, the article said.

European governments spent billions of dollars buying pandemic vaccines and antiviral drugs that went largely unused because the flu remained mild. The European Medicines Agency yesterday said three companies distributed more than 179 million doses of pandemic vaccine in Western Europe, of which at least a fifth was used. The article, which also found that two scientists who prepared annexes to the WHO’s 2004 pandemic guidelines had financial links to Roche, criticizes the lack of transparency of the agency’s expert consultations.

“The investigation reveals a system struggling to manage the inherent conflict between the pharmaceutical industry, WHO, and the global public health system, which all draw on the same pool of scientific experts,” the authors wrote.

‘Free of Undue Influence’

The recommendations on how to respond to a pandemic were drafted by 20 people and the WHO released them on the Web for six months to seek public comment before revising them and publishing them in 2004, Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman, said in a telephone interview.

“It’s very difficult for 2 of 20 to be a majority,” Hartl said. “There is a range of expertise on any given committee. We are confident that the end product is free of undue influence.”

The report also questioned the WHO’s policy of not disclosing the names of members of its emergency committee, a group of public health officials and flu experts that advises Director-General Margaret Chan. This makes it impossible to assess potential conflicts of interest with drugmakers, the BMJ said.

The Geneva-based WHO says the secrecy is intended to shield panel members from outside pressures.

‘Protect the Neutrality’

“We have to protect the neutrality of this advice,” Hartl said. “It’s easier to do that if their names aren’t known.”

The WHO says it made the best possible decisions to protect the public at a time when it had limited information about a lethal virus.

The BMJ report acknowledges there is a finite supply of experts to be found in the field, and many of them have worked for drugmakers.

“In disease areas like this, there is only a limited number of people who have got direct clinical investigational experience and virology experience, so it’s not surprising that we are going to be seeking advice from the same groups of people,” David Reddy, who heads Roche’s influenza task force, said in a telephone interview today. “It’s to everybody’s benefit that industry conduct its activities with the advice of experts.”

The WHO has processes in place for considering relationships with the pharmaceutical industry when it evaluates advice supplied by experts, he said. What’s more, the agency itself has initiated a review of the handling of the pandemic, so it’s too early to draw conclusions, according to Reddy.

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