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WHO under fire over handling of H1N1 pandemic

A registered nurse injects a dose of the H1N1 flu vaccine at a Toronto health clinic on Thursday, October 29, 2009

Darren Calabrese/Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The World Health Organization is facing criticism of its handling of the H1N1 pandemic as two new reports accuse the global health body of failing to disclose possible ties with the pharmaceutical industry and of pushing countries to waste millions of dollars by overstating the threat.

The reports from Europe were released on Friday, at the end of a week in which the WHO said that the H1N1 pandemic is not over, although its most intense activity has passed in many parts of the world.

It would make it far more difficult for these people to give good advice if their names were public. Gregory Hartl

The health committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe accused the WHO of exaggerating the threat of H1N1, unnecessarily scaring the public and causing countries to waste millions of dollars fighting it.

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A report by BMJ, a prominent medical journal in Britain, said the WHO relied on advice from scientists with ties to pharmaceutical companies when it developed guidelines on the use of antiviral drugs, and it asked why the names of those who sit on the WHO's emergency committee are shrouded in secrecy.

A WHO spokesman said the agency's response to the virus was necessary given its potential threat, and that the organization is careful not to let the drug industry influence its decision making.

"I think there will always be perhaps attempts by the pharmaceutical industry. But WHO has systems in place to prevent any attempts to exert undue influence. Those are stopped," Gregory Hartl said.

The BMJ article said three experts who received payments from Roche Holdings AG and GlaxoSmithKline PLC, manufacturers of antiviral drugs, also helped in preparing pandemic guidelines in 2004, which included the use of antivirals.

The WHO did not publicly disclose their conflicts of interest, the journal stated.

Further, the 16 emergency committee members who advise director-general Margaret Chan are known only to people within the WHO, the journal said.

But Mr. Hartl said it's standard procedure at the WHO for everyone to declare their conflicts. He said the names of emergency committee members won't be disclosed until their work is completed because "there could be any number of different pressures which would be placed on these committee members. ... It would make it far more difficult for these people to give good advice if their names were public."

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Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, said it's not surprising that scientists have some association with industry at some point in their careers. But he agreed with the BMJ that the names of the committee members and their possible conflicts of interest should be made public.

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