For makers of the swine flu vaccine, 2009 was a year to remember. By June, CSL Limited's annual profits had risen 63 percent above 2008 levels. GlaxoSmithKine's 2009 earnings spiked 30 percent in the third quarter alone, to $2.19 billion. And Roche made a stunning 12 times more money in the second quarter of 2009 than of 2009. But in 2010, drug companies may get their comeuppance.
On Tuesday, the Council of Europe launched an investigation into whether the World Health Organization "faked" the swine flu pandemic to boost profits for vaccine manufacturers. The inquiry, held in Strasbourg, France, vindicates a worldwide movement of insiders, experts, and elected officials who accuse the United Nations organization of misleading the world into buying millions of unnecessary vaccines.
"I have never heard such a worldwide echo to a health political action," Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg, an epidemiologist who formerly led the health committee for the Council of Europe, said at Tuesday's hearing.
Dr. Ulrich Keil, director of the WHO's Collaborating Centre for Epidemiology, hammered his own organization and WHO's flu chief, Dr Keiji Fukuda, for "producing angst campaigns".
"With SARS, with avian flu, always the predictions are wrong...Why don't we learn from history?" Keil said. "It [swine flu] produced a lot of turmoil in the pubic and was completely exaggerated in contrast with all the really important matters we have to deal with in public health."
Last year the World Health Organization predicted that H1N1 could infect 2 billion and claim hundreds of thousands of lives, while President Obama's science advisers said the outbreak could infect up to 120 million Americans and kill 90,000.
But thankfully, H1N1 turned out to be one of the milder flu strains on record. The type-A influenza is confirmed to have taken around 14,000 lives worldwide, according to World Health Organization numbers from January 22. The CDC said in December confirmed US deaths had reached 4,000, although it recently estimated that due to underreporting, the true death toll could be as high as 16,500 -- a tragic sum, but less than half of what the CDC attributes to seasonal flu-related illness. In most of the northern hemisphere, hog flu has been on the decline for some 10 straight weeks. New transmissions are largely contained to North Africa and South Asia, according to the WHO.
Throughout 2009, WHO and most domestic health agencies ignored mounting signs that swine flu wasn't much of a killer, and chose instead to sound the war bugles at full volume. The result was that governments poured tens of billions of dollars into vaccines. The US alone has spent $2 billion on the drugs and has allocated $7.5 billion in supplemental spending for H1N1 preparedness.
Now that the disease has petered out ahead of schedule, however, countries are stuck with millions of unused doses. French and German governments have had to cancel millions of orders of the vaccines due to falling demand and late-breaking news that European health authorities had recommended twice the necessary dosage. The CDC has dealt with the glut in another way. It now says all Americans should go and get the shot, a shift from its earlier recommendation that at-risk groups such as the young, sick, pregnant, and nurses seek injections first. But why should everyone get a shot when that the disease appears to be over?
On January 22, WHO issued a statement calling allegations that it irresponsibly stoked H1N1 fears, "scientifically wrong and historically incorrect." The statement defends figures WHO publicized on transmission rates, mortality, and the virulence of swine flu.
"The world is going through a real pandemic. The description of it as a fake is wrong and irresponsible. We welcome any legitimate review process that can improve our work."
Previously, WHO had offered scant response to allegations of corruption, but deigned to defend itself after the Council of Europe meeting was announced. At the hearing, WHO's flu director, Dr Keiji Fukuda, denied the accusations against WHO.