European MPs have criticised the European Union (EU)’s “disproportionate” response to the outbreak of H1N1 swine flu virus in 2009-10 and have called for more safeguards against “conflicts of interest.”

H1N1 had caused 2,900 deaths in Europe by April 2010, compared to 40,000 deaths from seasonal flu in a moderate year, points out a resolution which has been adopted by the Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) on a 58-2 vote, with one abstention.

French Green Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Michele Rivasi, who drafted the resolution, described the report as “an important attempt to highlight the concerns that have been raised about the disproportionate response to the swine flu in Europe, as well as the potential influence of pharmaceutical companies in response processes.”

EU member states’ responses to the virus ranged from wholesale vaccination programmes to none at all – in the case of Poland – and billions of euros were spent in total, says the ENVI report. It emphasises the need to reassess vaccination strategies, and also suggests that better cooperation will be necessary in future. The MEPs support the mechanism for group purchasing of vaccines across the member states which is currently being considered by the Commission, pointing out that limited cooperation between states and the fact that some did not have pre-existing purchase agreements in place had contributed to the EU’s lack of preparedness when faced with the virus.

“France regrets 220 deaths and 3,000 cases of various adverse effects, whereas Poland, which refused to organise a vaccination campaign, had 120 deaths and no adverse effects. My report aims to obtain precise explanations on the choices that led to the organisations of such operations considering the low risk-benefit ratio,” said Ms Rivasi.

The resolution calls for further safeguards to prevent potential conflicts of interest. The names of experts who advise European health authorities should be made public, say the MEPs, and they also point out that while EU legislation states that full liability for vaccines must remain with the manufacturer and not with the member states, this was not always the case during the flu pandemic.

The EU member states should supply the Commission with information on the number of vaccines and antiviral drugs they purchased, used and sold, with details of the costs, and the vaccination strategies implemented by the various member states need to be evaluated based on their cost and clinical effectiveness, among other factors, the MEPs recommend.

They also call for the EU to have greater autonomy from the World Health Organisation (WHO), and for WHO to review its definition of a “pandemic” to include consideration of the severity of an illness and not only the spread of a virus. To ensure the EU’s own risk assessment capacity, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) should be given full independence and the necessary support to be able to assess risks independently, as well as perform its other tasks, the parliamentarians add.

“The member states reacted in a largely individual manner instead of cooperating, but the virus had, of course, no territorial boundaries,” commented Belgian MEP Anne Delvaux, who is shadow rapporteur for the European People’s Party (EPP) - the largest political group in Parliament - and will chair, on February 9, an EPP group hearing on the lessons to be learnt from the H1N1 flu pandemic. “In the interest of all Europeans, we need to learn lessons from the way H1N1 was managed, so as to better deal with any future pandemic risks,” added Ms Delvaux.