Drug firms 'drove swine flu pandemic warning to recoup £billions spent on research'
Last updated at 7:49 AM on 27th January 2010
Drug companies manipulated the World Health Organisation into downgrading its definition of a pandemic so they could cash in on a swine flu outbreak, it is claimed.
An inquiry heard yesterday that the WHO allegedly softened its criteria for declaring a H1N1 flu pandemic last spring - just weeks before announcing there was a worldwide outbreak.
Critics said the decision was driven by pharmaceutical companies desperate to recoup the billions of pounds they had invested in researching and developing pandemic vaccines after the bird flu scares in 2006 and 2007.
As a result, millions of people have been vaccinated against a mild illness, and money that could have been used to prevent and treat major killers such as heart disease has been squandered.
The claims, which emerged during the first of several Council of Europe hearings into the handling of the swine flu pandemic, were strongly rejected by the WHO.
Following the organisation's declaration of a pandemic, the Department of Health warned of 65,000 deaths, set up a special advice line and website, and suspended normal rules so anti-flu drugs could be given without prescription.
But with just 250 or so deaths in Britain and 14,000 worldwide, the WHO is being asked to account for its actions.
The Government is now trying to off-load millions of jabs it ordered at the height of the scare. Sources say it is even considering giving some doses away for free.
Wolfgang Wodarg, former head of health at the Council of Europe, the Strasbourg-based 'senate' responsible for the European Court of Human Rights, said vaccine contracts were put in place in 2007, when it was feared the more lethal bird flu virus would mutate into human form.
Drug companies, which spent up to £2.5billion developing a vaccine, then pushed their interests within the WHO, leading to the definition of a pandemic being softened and an outbreak declared.
He told the hearing: 'It was stated in panic- stricken terms that this was a flu that could threaten humanity and a great number of humans could fall ill.
'This is why billions of dollars of medications were bought.
Dr Wodarg, an expert on the spread of disease, said that the change in definition made it possible for a worldwide pandemic to be declared and for the pharmaceutical companies to cash in.
Also giving evidence, Professor Ulrich Keil, a WHO adviser on heart disease, said the decision had led to a 'gigantic misallocation' of health budgets.
'We know the great killers are hypertension, smoking, high cholesterol, high body mass index, physical inactivity and low fruit and vegetable intake,' he said.
'In spite of all these facts, governments instead wasted huge amounts of money by investing in pandemic scenarios whose evidence base is weak.'
But Dr Kieji Fukuda, the WHO's top flu expert, rejected the allegations. 'We do not wait until (these global virus outbreaks) have developed and we see that lots of people are dying,' he said.
'What we try to do is take preventive actions. Our purpose is to try to provide guidance, to reduce harm.'