July 3, 2010

Scientists Still At Odds Over Swine Flu Pandemic

A World Health Organization probe into the international handling of the swine flu pandemic has seen difficulty in getting a reasonable view of what happened, according to the head of the probe on Friday.

"The challenge is to believe what is true without getting distracted by the vast diversity of opinions," said Harvey Fineberg, chairman of the review committee of external experts formed in April.

The panel ended its second three-day public hearing on Friday after hearing from national health officials, representatives of pharmaceuticals and the media. Fineberg told AFP that "one of the major conclusions is the perception of what happened is radically different from each point of view." He noted that views ranged from those who were supportive of the UN health agency's actions to the completely critical.

At the first hearing, which took place in April, the probe quizzed WHO officials and other health specialists on some of the key panels that advised the agency revolving around issues such as vaccines and the degree of public health alerts.

European parliamentarians last week found "grave shortcomings" in WHO transparency and expressed concerns about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on decision making and the need for costly special vaccines. There was "overwhelming evidence that the seriousness of the pandemic was vastly overrated by WHO," said the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly following an inquiry.

During this week's probe hearing, French health ministry official Didier Houssin commended the agency's "reactiveness" while suggesting that it should reinforce the credibility of its experts.

In sharp contrast, British Medical Journal editor Fiona Godlee called for greater transparency. She said the WHO should disclose the names of the members of the emergency committee of disease experts advising the agency's chief -- Margaret Chan -- about the level of danger that swine flu represents.

Fineberg, who heads of the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academy of Sciences, said the committee of health specialists and officials has scheduled another public hearing in September, as well as November.

The panel's findings are due to be released by the beginning of 2011.