The World Health Organization (WHO) denied on Tuesday that it was unduly influenced by drugs companies to exaggerate the dangers of the H1N1 flu virus.
Pharmaceutical firms picked up multi-million dollar vaccination contracts when the United Nations health agency declared the flu a pandemic last June.
Although many millions around the world have been infected with H1N1, and many thousands have died, the pandemic proved milder than health experts had originally feared.
Accusations from some politicians and media that the WHO relied too much on advice from experts in the pay of the pharmaceutical industry — who could have a vested interest in dramatizing the crisis — have triggered an internal review by the WHO and an inquiry by the Council of Europe, a European Union human rights watchdog.
The WHO's top flu expert, Keiji Fukuda, told a hearing at the Council of Europe that although the organization’s response to the virus was not perfect, it had not been bounced into the wrong decisions by the drugs giants.
"Let me state clearly for the record. The influenza pandemic policies and responses recommended and taken by WHO were not improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry," Fukuda told the Strasbourg-based body.
The Council, which groups together most European countries, called on the WHO to address concerns over the handling of the pandemic.
Many countries ordered tens of millions of doses of vaccines against H1N1 in a bid to protect their populations against H1N1 and are now trying to cut the orders or sell off surpluses of unused stock.
GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and Sanofi-Aventis are among H1N1 vaccine producers.
SAFEGUARDS IN PLACE
Fukuda said the WHO consulted a range of experts, including scientists working in the private sector, when drawing up its health advice and had safeguards in place to protect against conflicts of interest.
"We are under no illusions that this response was the perfect response," Fukuda told the hearing. "But we do not wait until (these global virus outbreaks) have developed and we see that lots of people are dying. What we try and do is take preventive actions. If we are successful no one will die, no one will notice anything," he added.
"We feel we should move quickly. Our purpose is to try to provide guidance, to try to reduce harm," he said.
Accusations began circulating in British and French media in November that the H1N1 pandemic may have been "hyped" by health experts and medical researchers keen to boost study grants and line the pockets of drug companies.
At that time, France's Le Parisien newspaper ran a headline saying: "Swine flu: why the French distrust the vaccine" and noted a gap between the predicted impact of H1N1 and the less dramatic reality, while Britain's independent newspaper asked "Pandemic? What Pandemic?".
The WHO said earlier this month that it would review the way it dealt with the flu outbreak, calling in independent outsiders to look at its workings.
Fukuda said the review would include scrutinizing the way it classified virus outbreaks following widespread confusion over what the definition of "pandemic" actually meant.
"We will consider whether we can define things better, whether we can measure and report severity better," he said.