The World Health Organisation has hit back at allegations made about its handling of the swine flu pandemic and specifically the accusation that guidance given was influenced by pharmaceutical companies.

The swine flu row broke out again at the end of last week after a report from the Council of Europe stated that the handling of the H1N1 flu pandemic by the WHO, as well as European Union agencies and governments led to a “waste of large sums of public money, and unjustified scares and fears’ about the health risks faced. That report was preceded by a joint investigation by the BMJ and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which claimed that researchers advising the WHO 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”.

The BMJ article also mentioned the “secret ‘emergency committee’ which advised the agency, declaring that 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 latter criticised the WHO’s alleged lack of transparency, prompting Margaret Chan, its director-general, to write to the editors of the BMJ in reference to the article on conflicts of interest. She states in the letter: “let me be perfectly clear on one point. At no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making”.

Dr Chan goes on to say that concerning the members of the emergency committee that advised the WHO on the pandemic, “the names will be released when the committee finishes its work, as has always been intended”. She added that “our decision not to make these names public was motivated by a desire to protect the experts from commercial or other influences. The members themselves welcomed this decision as a protective measure, and not as an attempt to veil their deliberations and decisions in secrecy”.

The WHO chief also stated that the BMJ feature will leave many readers with the impression that the decision to declare a pandemic “was at least partially influenced by a desire to boost the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. The bottom line, however, is that decisions to raise the level of pandemic alert were based on clearly defined virological and epidemiological criteria. It is hard to bend these criteria, no matter what the motive”.

Dr Chan concluded by saying accusations that the WHO changed its definition of a pandemic “in order to accommodate a less severe event (and thus benefit industry) are not supported by the facts”. The current pandemic preparedness plan was finalised in February 2009 following two years of consultations and “a new strain of H1N1 was neither on the horizon nor mentioned in the document”.