Researchers advising the World Health Organisation over preparations for a swine flu pandemic had done paid work for pharmaceutical firms “who stood to gain from the guidance these scientists were preparing”, according to a report released this morning.

The analysis is the result of a joint investigation by the British Medical Journal and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It notes that the WHO’s advice led to governments stockpiling billions of dollars of antivirals as part of global pandemic preparedness plans but claims that “despite repeated requests”, the WHO has failed to provide any details about conflict of interests involving the experts consulted “and what, if anything, was done about them”.__

The BMJ says its report “echoes a highly critical inquiry by the Council of Europe”, whose findings will also be published later today (full analysis on PharmaTimes World News on Monday), “and will fuel suspicions that the drug industry was able to exert undue influence” on the WHO. __

The investigation notes that the WHO’s 2004 guidance on the use of antivirals in a pandemic was prepared by an influenza expert who had received payment from Roche, manufacturers of Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and GlaxoSmithKline, which markets Relenza (zanamivir), for lecturing and consultancy work. That guidance concluded that “countries should consider developing plans for ensuring the availability of antivirals” and that they “will need to stockpile in advance, given that current supplies are very limited".

__In addition, the BMJ/Bureau probe found that two other scientists who prepared annexes to the WHO 2004 pandemic guidelines had recent financial links to Roche. The report notes that the WHO did not publicly disclose any of these conflicts of interest and “it is not clear whether these conflicts were notified privately by the WHO to governments around the world, many of which followed its advice”.

__The damning report goes on to say that “this lack of transparency is compounded by the existence of a secret ‘emergency committee’ which advised the WHO's director general Margaret Chan on declaring an influenza pandemic”. It adds that “significantly, the names of the 16 committee members are known only to people within the WHO, and as such their possible conflicts of interest with drug companies are unknown”.

The WHO has repeatedly denied any industry influence on the scientific advice it received, saying it takes conflicts of interests seriously and has the mechanisms in place to deal with them. However the BMJ and the Bureau suggest that the organisation “seems not to have followed its own rules for the decision-making around the pandemic”. __

The report concludes that “despite repeated requests”, the WHO has refused to provide any information about the conflict of interest declarations made to it, leaving the investigation to wonder "whether major public health organisations are able to manage the conflicts of interest that are inherent in medical science effectively."

__In an accompanying editorial, Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the BMJ says the WHO’s credibility has been badly damaged, claiming that “recovery will be fastest if it publishes its own report without delay or defensive comment”. It needs to make public “the membership and conflicts of interest of its emergency committee, and develop, commit to, and monitor stricter rules of engagement with industry that keep commercial influence away from its decision-making”.