Flu “pandemic”: Scam, Scandal or Waste?

Reports surfacing in France, the UK and Italy suggest the 2009 swine flu pandemic scare bore signs of a significant overreaction to reality.

Italian MEP Oreste Rossi on the left in this picture from his website

Oreste Rossi an MEP for Italy’s Northern League is seeking a European Parliament inquiry into the World Health Organisation’s handling of the swine flu affair.

In France an official parliamentary report shows that the swine flu vaccination scheme failed to catch on and led to huge waste with millions of doses discarded. In his recent question to the European Parliament, Oreste Rossi referred to “explosive” criticism by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe over the WHO’s lack of transparency in the affair. See the COE’s parliamentary assembly document here in pdf format

In the UK a joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ)and the British Medical Journal (BMJ) claims that key scientists advising the WHO on its influenza guidelines had links to pharmaceutical companies which stood to profit from the organisation’s decisions.

The BIJ report says: “In 2004, the WHO issued guidelines to countries on preparing for a major influenza pandemic. They predicted that the next pandemic would “be associated with a high death toll”, and urged nations to stockpile antivirals to treat the disease. These antivirals were Tamiflu, produced by Roche, and Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline. The guidelines were distributed throughout the world and prompted mass sales of the drugs: since 2004 orders of Tamiflu topped ten billion dollars, while sales of Relenza reached two billion dollars.”

Jean-Christophe Lagarde a French deputy for the Nouveau Centre party, who led the French parliamentary inquiry, said the low takeup (by the French) of the antiviral on offer and the fact that almost 3.5 million doses were thrown away represented “a public health failure”. Lagarde’s committee report concluded that while the government legitimately believed that swine flu presented a serious public health risk and that the order for 92 million vaccine doses was justified; this order should have been revised once it became clear that the virus was far less dangerous than initially thought. During France’s €700m campaign some 5.36 million people, less than 8.5% of the total population, were vaccinated. Although pharmaceutical firms such as Sanofi and Novartis have agreed to cancel nine million doses, GlaxoSmithKline is negotiating €108m compensation for cancelling an order for 32 million doses.

In the joint investigation with BIJ, led by Dr Deborah Cohen of the British Medical Journal, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism said three key scientists advising the WHO for their 2004 guidelines had, at that time, clear financial links to Roche and GlaxoSmithKline and at the time the WHO did not declare any conflicts of interest. (See here): “Professors Frederick Hayden, Arnold Monto, and Karl Nicholson, who prepared the annexes for the guidelines, had been paid consultants and speakers for the companies. Professor Hayden, a respected US virologist, produced a section on the benefits of antiviral drugs and the need for global stockpiles. But Hayden was receiving funds from Roche until late 2004.” The WHO told the Bureau (BIJ) that a declaration of interest statement relating to its 2004 antiviral and vaccine guidelines had been taken. Greg Hartl, WHO spokesman, emphasized that the WHO had procedures to ensure “robustness” of its guidelines, and that the organisation has a “personal commitment to transparency”, BIJ said.

According to Le Monde these are the headline statistics related to the swine flu vaccine campaign costs and uncovered in the parliamentary investigation:


312 – The number of deaths directly related to influenza A (H1N1) in France, according to latest bulletin from the Institute of Health on April 20. The epidemic ended mid-January.

30,000 – Assumption of deaths in France issued in spring 2009 by Antoine Flahault, flu specialist and director of the Graduate School of Public Health.

18,156 – The number of deaths from influenza A in the world according to World Health Organization.

5.7 million – The number of French people vaccinated against influenza A, the government said.

12 million – Target number government set for French vaccinations in December 2009.

94 million – The number of vaccine doses ordered by France from four laboratories, Sanofi-Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Novartis and Baxter. France then cancelled half these orders.

48 million euros- Estimated by the Ministry of Health as the compensation paid to Sanofi, Novartis and GSK for cancelling 50 million vaccines, — 16% of the price. Negotiations with GSK are ongoing.

699 million euros- Cost of the entire vaccination campaign to the State according to the Audit Court.

The government announced the purchase of more than 90 million vaccines against influenza A, for a cost of around 800 million euros.

Le Monde says the report also notes that the pandemic was “indicative of the tremendous crisis of confidence” on the part of the population. The French “no longer believe the messages of prevention and public health. To explain this, parliamentarians cited ‘crazy Internet rumours’, along with ‘violent attacks by the anti-vaccine lobby’ and ‘speculative announcements by pseudo-experts in search of media fame’. As a result the parliamentarians set out 42 proposals designed to restore confidence in public health policies and better to manage future crises.

Not everyone was or is happy with the efficacy of nor need for the anti-virals as this May 2009 report shows: German expert doubts anti-viral drug Tamiflu can fight swine flu

Some of the blame may have lain with the media Debra E. Blakely suggests in this report from May 08, 2009:Swine Flu Media Pandemic Scare: A Lesson from History?

Story: Ken Pottinger

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