European rights watchdog: WHO's handling of swine flu outbreak was wasteful, unjustified scare

PARIS (AP) — A report released by the Council of Europe on Friday accuses the World Health Organization and European governments of vastly exaggerating the public health risks of swine flu and making secretive decisions that benefited pharmaceutical companies.

WHO, the U.N. health agency, has said those who claim swine flu was a fake pandemic created for the benefit of drug companies are irresponsible.

A report by the health committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a 47-member human rights watchdog, says the public health guidelines by WHO, EU agencies and national governments led to a "waste of large sums of public money and unjustified scares and fears about the health risks faced by the European public."

The report was made public Friday. Legislators from all 47 members of the Council of Europe will debate the report June 24. The Council of Europe is not a European Union body and has no power over WHO.

The committee said decisions about the outbreak were poorly explained and not transparent enough. It warned that public trust in WHO recommendations is "plummeting," which could be dangerous in case of a more severe pandemic in the future. The committee also suggested that drug makers contribute to a public fund to support independent research.

Since bird flu broke out several years ago, governments worldwide have bought stockpiles of vaccines and antivirals. The emergence of swine flu sparked some countries to buy even more drugs. Many of the drugs and vaccines have gone unused, and the outbreak turned out to be much less deadly than some experts had feared.

Because influenza is so unpredictable, authorities often must prepare for the worst. Some had feared swine flu could be as deadly as the 1918 pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide.

The WHO website says that, as of Sunday, 18,138 deaths were attributable to swine flu, which has affected more than 214 countries and overseas territories or communities.

WHO has said the outbreak last year had all the scientific characteristics of a pandemic, and insisted the organization was never improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry.