Drug companies and the pandemic that wasn’t
One agency was given one hour to place a multimillion-euro order, and told that the drugs would be offered to another country if they prevaricated.
These revelations come at a time when both the Council of Europe and World Health Organization (WHO) face embarrassing questions about their relationships with the drug industry. The WHO’s actions—and the way it escalated the outbreak into an international pandemic—are also being reviewed.
In the meantime, drug companies are counting the profits they made from the pandemic that wasn’t. Last April, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) told its happy shareholders that it had made £698m from sales of its Pandemrix swine-flu shots, boosting its first-quarter revenues by 17 per cent.
GSK was one of several drug companies that had locked health agencies into lucrative agreements to buy their anti-flu drugs and shots with the proviso that they would be auto-matically triggered the moment the WHO classified any virus outbreak as a pandemic, or phase-6, outbreak.
The WHO issued just such an alert in June 2009 while, in the UK, health officials warned a frightened public that the pandemic was expected to claim the lives of 750,000 Britons.
Keiji Fukuda, an influenza specialist with the organization, was quick to assure journalists that “the pharma-ceutical industry did not influence any of our decisions”. However, three weeks before the announcement was made, 30 senior representatives of drug companies had met with WHO Director-General Margaret Chan and, according to the German news maga-zine Der Spiegel, the group was mainly interested in knowing when phase 6 would be declared.
However, Big Pharma’s close alliance with the WHO and its decision-makers had begun much earlier in the year, when the drug companies funded a group of scientists calling itself the ‘European Scientific Working Group on Influenza’. The group was headed by Albert Osterhaus of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, one of the WHO’s most influential advisers on flu vaccines.
But even before the alert was given, the drug industry was bullying government agencies into buying up stocks of general antivirals. In April 2009, Roche had informed German health officials in Thuringia that they had just one hour to decide whether or not to purchase 180,000 packs of its antivital drug Tamiflu, or “. . . the inventory will be used to service other inquiries from wholesalers”, Spiegel investigators discovered.
Roche was less keen to reveal the limitations of Tamiflu. The drug’s insert says that it can reduce the duration of general flu symptoms by one day, provided it is taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms arising.
The swine-flu scare also coincided with the end of the shelf-life of Tamiflu stocks in the UK, which had been purchased to counteract avian flu (H5N1)—the 2005 pandemic that never was. At the time, both the US and UK had, between them, more than $3bn’s worth of stocks of the antivital to dispose of. The US declared a state of emergency and used up its Tamiflu stocks on vital public workers.
Poland is one of the few nations to resist bullying by drug companies. Its health minister Ewa Kopacz told her parliament: “Is it my duty to sign agreements that are in the interest of Poles, or in the interest of the pharma-ceutical companies?” Although there is no guarantee that the drugs would have saved them, in the event, 170 Poles died of swine flu—a death tally far lower than that for the usual seasonal flu.
By October 2009, it was clear that swine flu was neither a pandemic nor even a particularly virulent strain of flu, and some government agencies were coming round to the view that they had indeed been pushed into purchasing stocks of antivirals and flu vaccines that weren’t needed, and that they had also been misled by the WHO. In turn, the WHO had been receiving reports that its pandemic alert was being overstated. Virologists at the University of Maryland had already reported in August that the H1N1 virus would not reach pandemic levels, and neither would it transmutate into a so-called ‘super bug’ (PLoS Currents, August 25, 2009; www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/ articles/PMC2762341/).
Wolf-Dieter Ludwig, chairman of the Drug Commission of the German Medical Association, said: “The health authorities have fallen for a campaign by the pharmaceutical companies, which were plainly using a supposed threat to make money.”
The conduct of the drug industry and WHO officials is being reviewed by an external committee, which began its investigations last May. Committee chairman Harvey Fineberg has said that none of the committee members is being paid by the WHO, and that he expects to submit a final report within a year. WHO Director-General Chan says she wants a “frank, critical, trans-parent, credible and independent review”.
Nevertheless, some of those within the European Parliament are already convinced of the drug companies’ guilt. Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, chairman of the Health Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), has described the swine-flu pandemic scare as “one of the greatest medical scandals of the century”.
PACE has launched its own enquiry into the whole affair, and part of its statement reads: “In order to promote their patented drugs and vaccines against flu, pharmaceutical companies influenced scientists and official agencies, responsible for public health standards, to alarm governments worldwide and make them squander tight health resources for inefficient vaccine strategies and needlessly expose millions of healthy people to the risk of an unknown amount of side-effects of insufficiently tested vaccines. The ‘bird flu’ campaign of 2005–6, combined with the ‘swine flu’ cam-paign, seem to have caused a great deal of damage, not only to some vac-cinated patients and to public health budgets, but to the credibility and accountability of important inter-national health agencies”.
Ultimately, three groups benefit from any health scare:
• drug companies, as any health scare drives up sales of drugs, whether or not they are
• health agencies, especially if they need to get rid of old supplies while avoiding a public enquiry and want to be seen as ‘well prepared’; and
• the media, who know that a health scare will always sell newspapers.
The problem for the WHO and other health agencies is that they have warned of an impending epidemic or pandemic three times in the past 10 years—SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), bird flu and swine flu—and each time been proved wrong. But, they argue, it’s better to be safe than sorry; they’re also influenced by epi-demiologists who claim that a major pandemic is long overdue.
However, if it’s proven that the drug industry played a major part in orchestrating the latest scare, the WHO may never be believed again.
Some of the facts in this article were first published in Spiegel Online at www.spiegel.de/international/world/
WDDTY VOL 21 NO 3