Vaccine for swine flu pandemic was 'morally justified'
By Debora MacKenzie And so the backlash begins. As the current wave of H1N1 flu starts to fade in Europe, questions are being asked about the expensive vaccines bought to fight it. Later this month members of parliament from countries in the Council of Europe, a club of 47 countries, will hold an inquiry into why the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, triggering government vaccine purchases. Fourteen members of the council’s Parliamentary Assembly have released a document charging that “pharmaceutical companies have influenced scientists and official agencies… to alarm governments” in order to “promote their patented drugs and vaccines”. Countries which had standing vaccine orders that were activated by the swine flu pandemic are now trying to limit orders and sell or give away vaccine, as demand is low. This is partly because the pandemic has been relatively mild, and partly because most people have needed only one dose of vaccine instead of two as expected. The document says the credibility of public health agencies has been damaged by a pandemic declaration that mainly benefited vaccine companies. “The WHO gave two false alarms, for bird flu and swine flu,” says Wolfgang Wodarg, who is chair of the Parliamentary Assembly’s health subcommittee, a medical doctor and until recently a member of the German parliament. He says he doesn’t believe swine flu is truly a pandemic and feels pandemic vaccines have not been sufficiently tested. The pandemic vaccine contracts at issue were based largely on fears that the highly virulent H5N1 bird flu would cause a pandemic, requiring an immediate, emergency response. “Given the discrepancy between what was expected and what has happened,” the WHO said in a statement last month when criticisms first surfaced, “a search for ulterior motives… is understandable, though without justification.” The WHO says it declared the pandemic because that was how the virus was behaving. And it isn’t always mild. Wodarg believes the WHO changed its definition of a pandemic in order to allow swine flu to be classed as one. But WHO officials have always stressed that global spread, not severity of disease, defines a pandemic. “When you have a virus to which many people have no obvious immunity, and which is spreading globally, you don’t know how it will evolve,” says David Heymann, who is a former assistant director of the WHO and helped develop its International Health Regulations, in force since 2007. These govern international disease events, including pandemics. “In those circumstances, if you can make a vaccine, then morally speaking, you must.” More on these topics: