The handling of the H1N1 flu pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), European Union (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,” claims a report from the Council of Europe.

“This was a pandemic that never really was,” says UK Labour MP Paul Flynn, who prepared the report for the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and he describes the vaccination programme as “placebo medicine on a large scale.”

The report, which has been approved by the PACE health panel ahead of a full debate on the issue by all 47 Council of Europe member states on June 24 in Strasbourg, says there is “overwhelming evidence that the seriousness of the pandemic was vastly overrated by WHO,” and this resulted in a distortion of public health priorities.

Moreover, the "strong commercial interests" in the pandemic and vaccination campaigns are illustrated by "the high levels of profit that pharmaceutical companies were able to make,” says the committee text, which quotes the investment bank JP Morgan as reporting that sales of H1N1 vaccines in 2009 were expected to result in overall profits of $7-$10 billion dollars to vaccine manufacturers.

The report identifies “grave shortcomings” in the transparency of decision-making about the outbreak, which it says has generated concerns about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on the decisions taken, and warns that plummeting confidence in such advice could prove “disastrous” in the case of a severe future pandemic.

In particular, the WHO and European health institutions were not 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 point out.

“The tentacles of drug company influence are in all levels in the decision-making process,” The Guardian newspaper reports Mr Flynn as stating.

Attending the meeting in Paris at which the report was made public on June 4 was Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), which that morning had published the results of its own investigation into the pandemic, conducted jointly with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. This reports that key scientists advising the WHO on planning for the pandemic had done paid work for pharmaceutical firms who stood to gain from the guidance the scientists were preparing.

Dr Godlee told the meeting the Council of Europe text was “extremely important, and its findings complement the findings of the BMJ's own report.” Key guidance from WHO - on the need to stockpile antivirals, on the effectiveness of flu vaccines and on pandemic flu in general - was authored by experts being paid by industry and, given the huge public cost and private profit from the pandemic, the existence of these conflicts of interest was of grave concern, more so because WHO has not been transparent about them, she said.

Restoring the serious damage done to the WHO’s credibility by these events must begin with an open evaluation of decision-making around the pandemic, with full disclosure of the evidence behind the decisions, the names of those contributing to the decisions and their conflicts of interest, added Dr Godlee, and she warned: “the current leadership of WHO may need to resign in light of what such an evaluation will reveal.”

The PACE committee report’s examination of alleged “undue influence and pressure” by the pharmaceutical industry includes an analysis of the contractual arrangements concluded between drugmakers and national governments concerning the supply of vaccines. “Reports from several European countries indicate that there was pressure exerted on national governments to speed up the conclusion of major contracts, that dubious practices were followed concerning prices of vaccines, which were not available under normal market conditions, and that there were attempts to transfer liability for vaccines and medication, which might not have been tested sufficiently, to national governments,” it says, describing these events as “most alarming.”

In its recommendations, the health panel says the Parliamentary Assembly should call upon the pharmaceutical industry “to be aware of their corporate social responsibility with regard to major public health matters, and to act in the most transparent manner possible,” and also urges the industry’s associations to be ready to critically revise their own rules and functioning regarding cooperation with the public sector and their role in public health emergencies. While the health panel “fully recognises the fact that the highly-specialised knowledge in industrial companies makes them an indispensable partner for public health authorities,” this should “not empower them to put public health authorities under pressure and commercialise their products with a view to making excessive profits in emergency conditions,” the report concludes.

The PACE investigation was triggered by claims in January by the health committee’s then-chairman, Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, of undue industry influence helping to trigger the “false pandemic,” which he said was “one of the greatest medicine scandals of the century.”

- In May, more than 200 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) signed a petition calling on the Parliament’s Conference of Presidents to establish a new parliamentary committee to investigate the handling of the H1N1 flu pandemic.

The work of such a committee would be likely to focus in particular on the EU’s acceptance of advice from the WHO, as was the case with the Council of Europe probe, but the MEPs also want to examine the role of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Centre for Prevention and Disease Control (ECDC). Observers suggest that it could also look at the feasibility of a common EU approach for buying and distributing vaccines across Europe.