Even as questions are being raised about whether the swine flu scare was exaggerated to benefit pharma companies, evidence has surfaced that several members of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) vaccine board which pushed countries to buy the H1N1 vaccine have had significant ties with pharma companies.
This fact, which is bound to raise issues of conflict of interest, was exposed by Danish daily ‘Information’ last month. TOI attempted to get WHO’s response, but several emails sent to the office of the WHO director-general on January 9 met with no response.
Documents acquired through the Danish Freedom of Information Act revealed that Prof Juhani Eskola, a Finnish member of the WHO board on vaccines, ‘Strategic Advisory Group of Experts’ (SAGE), received almost 6.3 million euros in 2009 for his vaccine research programme, THL, from the vaccine manufacturers, GSK, qualifying GSK as THL’s main source of income. SAGE advises WHO chief Margaret Chan and recommends which vaccines and how much of it member countries should purchase, pointed out the Danish newspaper.
Apart from Prof Juhani Eskola, who received almost 6.3 million euros for his vaccine research programme, Danish journalists reported on six other members of ‘Strategic Advisory Group of Experts’ (SAGE) with financial ties to various pharmaceutical companies. These include Dr Peter Figueroa, Dr Neil Ferguson, Prof Malik Peiris, Dr Arnold Monto, Dr Friedrich Hayden and Dr Albert Osterhaus. Barring Dr Figuero, who revealed that he had accepted a research grant from Merck, none of the others made any disclosures.
Many of the pharmaceutical companies with which the vaccine board members had ties, are also the manufacturers of vaccines including the H1N1 vaccine like GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Novartis, Solvay, Baxter, MedImmune and Sanofi Aventis. None of the WHO members on the vaccine board, barring one, declared any conflict of interest despite having extensive financial ties with the pharmaceutical companies in the form of research grants and consultancies.
In a statement issued on December 3, 2009, WHO claims that numerous safeguards are in place to manage possible conflicts of interest or their perception. “Members of SAGE are required to declare all professional and financial interests, including funding received from pharmaceutical companies or consultancies or other forms of professional engagement with pharmaceutical companies.
The names and affiliations of members of SAGE and of SAGE working groups are published on the WHO web site, together with meeting reports and declarations of interest submitted by the experts. Allegations of undeclared conflicts of interest are taken very seriously by WHO, and are immediately investigated,” says the statement. However, there is no such disclosure by these SAGE members on the WHO website.