The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly has backed a highly-critical report on the handling of the H1N1flu pandemic, and called on the pharmaceutical industry to revise its rules on how it cooperates with the public sector.

In a debate which adopted the Assembly Health Committee’s report on the pandemic, published on June 4, the parliamentarians condemned the “waste of large sums of public money and unjustified scares and fears about the health risks faced by the European public” which had resulted from the way the pandemic had been handled by the World Health Organization (WHO), European Union (EU) health agencies and national governments. There was “overwhelming evidence that the seriousness of the pandemic was vastly overrated by WHO,” resulting in a distortion of public health priorities, they added. _

They supported the findings of the report – produced by Health Committee rapporteur and UK Labour Member of Parliament Paul Flynn – that there were “grave shortcomings” in the transparency of decision-making about the outbreak, generating concerns about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on decisions taken. Plummeting confidence in such advice could prove “disastrous” in the case of a severe future pandemic, they warned.

The Assembly accused the WHO of being “highly defensive” and unwilling to accept that a change in the definition of a pandemic was made or to revise its prognosis of the flu outbreak, and noted that neither the WHO or the European health institutions had been willing to publish the names and declarations of interest of the members of the WHO Emergency Committee and relevant European advisory bodies directly involved in recommendations concerning the pandemic.

The parliamentarians yesterday urged all the public health authorities involved, and especially the WHO, to urgently address the criticisms and disquiet raised by their handling of the pandemic, and call on the EU member states to “develop systems of safeguards against undue influence by vested interests if they have not yet done so.”

National governments should also consider establishing a public fund to support independent research, trials and expert advice - possibly financed by an obligatory contribution from the pharmaceutical industry, and ensure that the private sector “does not gain undue profit from public health scares and that they are not allowed to absolve themselves of liabilities with a view to privatising profits whilst communitising risks,” they added.

The media must avoid “sensationalism and scaremongering in the public health domain,” while the pharmaceutical industry needs to revise its rules and functioning regarding co-operation with the public sector “in order to ensure the highest degree of transparency and corporate social responsibility when it comes to major public health matters,” said the Assembly members.

Speaking to the BBC this week, Mr Flynn, who is Labour MP for Newport West, said that the WHO had “frightened the whole world with the possibility that a major plague was on the way” and, as a result, “billions and billions of pounds” were spend on vaccines and antivirals that will never be used.

The firewall that should exist between the commercial interests and the scientists had been breached, he said, adding: “we know the only people who benefited were pharmaceutical companies. They had a huge influence in defining what a pandemic is."