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BMJ Report Questions WHO Advisors’ Ties To Pharmaceutical Industry

“Key scientists behind World Health Organization advice on stockpiling of pandemic flu drugs had financial ties with companies which stood to profit,” according to a joint investigation by BMJ in collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, BBC News reports (6/4).

The investigation revealed that WHO guidance on the use of antiviral drugs and vaccines “issued in 2004 was authored by three scientists who had previously received payment for other work from Roche, which makes Tamiflu, and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), manufacturer of Relenza,” the Guardian reports. “Although the experts consulted made no secret of industry ties in other settings, declaring them in research papers and at universities, the WHO itself did not publicly disclose any of these in its seminal 2004 guidance” for use of medicines during an influenza pandemic. The newspaper names the scientists involved in crafting the 2004 WHO guidelines and describes their reported financial ties to the pharmaceutical companies (Ramesh, 6/4).

“The WHO’s advice led governments worldwide to stockpile vast quantities of antivirals, and its decision to declare a pandemic in June 2009 triggered the purchase of billion of dollars worth of hastily manufactured vaccines,” Agence France-Presse adds. “Much of these stocks have gone unused because the pandemic turned out to be far less lethal than some experts feared, fueling suspicion that Big Pharma exerted undue influence on WHO decisions,” the news service writes.

The investigation also raises questions about the WHO’s Emergency Committee – the 16-member group formed last year to advise the director general on the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic.

“WHO says all members of the Emergency Committee sign a confidentiality agreement, provide a declaration of interests, and agree to give their consultative time freely, without compensation. However, only one member of the committee has been publicly named: Professor John MacKenzie, who chairs it,” according to the BMJ report. “This is a troubling stance: it suggests that WHO considers other advisory groups whose members are not anonymous – such as the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization – to be potentially subject to outside influences, and it allows no scrutiny of the scientists selected to advise WHO and global governments on a major public health emergency.” According to the BMJ, at least one of the members on the Emergency Committee had received payment from GSK in 2009.

The BMJ article also looks at how the FDA and the European Medicines Agency reviewed the drugs Tamiflu and Relenza (Cohen/Carter, 6/3). 

Meanwhile, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan on Thursday defended the agency’s position on maintaining the privacy of the names of the Emergency Committee until their work is complete in a WHO statement. “The purpose of this practice is to protect the integrity and independence of the Members while doing this critical work – but also to ensure transparency by publicly providing the names of the members as well as information about any interest declared by them at the appropriate time,” Chan said. “The Committee Members strongly concurred with this approach” (6/3).

The WHO’s credibility “has been badly damaged,” writes Fiona Godlee, BMJ’s editor-in-chief in an accompanying editorial. “Recovery will be fastest if it publishes its own report without delay or defensive comment; makes public the membership and conflicts of interest of its emergency committee; and develops, commits to, and monitors stricter rules of engagement with industry that keep commercial influence away from its decision making” (6/3).