BMJ investigation exposes corruption and conflicts of interest within the World Health Organization

It’s almost a year to the day that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the planet was in the throes of an influenza ‘pandemic’. The advice was delivered by Dr Margaret Chan, the director general of the WHO. Her announcement triggered large-scale ‘panic-buying’ of flu vaccines and anti-viral drugs such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). According to the investment bank J P Morgan, the pharmaceutical companies did very nicely out of this ‘health scare’, profiting to the tune of $7 billion from the sale of vaccines alone.

In reality, though, the ‘pandemic’ turned out to be nothing of the sort. Estimates of cases and fatalities turned out to be wildly overblown. Apparently, many countries now have warehouses full of vaccines and drugs that they’re trying to offload, either back to the drug companies they bought them from or to other countries.

Of course, all this overreaction and unnecessary expense may have been down to nothing more than misguided and over-cautious recommendations made by those at the WHO and those who advise it. However, there has been reports that the supposedly impartial advice from the WHO regarding the flu pandemic was, at least in part, the result of influence from the pharmaceutical industry. The WHO has previously dismissed such allegations as ‘conspiracy theories’. Conspiracy theories can be just that – theories. But sometimes, they can turn out to be facts too.

This has come to a head today, on the publication in the British Medical Journal of a report and accompanying editorial [1,2] which focus on this issue. The report alone is voluminous, but here is a paragraph extracted from it that neatly sums up the issues:

‘A joint investigation by the BMJ and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has uncovered evidence that raises troubling questions about how WHO managed conflicts of interest among the scientists who advised its pandemic planning, and about the transparency of the science underlying its advice to governments. Was it appropriate for WHO to take advice from experts who had declarable financial and research ties with pharmaceutical companies producing antivirals and influenza vaccines? Why was key WHO guidance authored by an influenza expert who had received payment for other work from Roche, manufacturers of oseltamivir, and GlaxoSmithKline, manufacturers of zanamivir? And why does the composition of the emergency committee from which Chan sought guidance remain a secret known only to those within WHO? We are left wondering whether major public health organisations are able to effectively manage the conflicts of interest that are inherent in medical science.’

Often when I’m lecturing I am aware I am often saying things that go against ‘received wisdom’. Once presented with the scientific facts, some people feel quite outraged that they may have been misled in a way that may well have actually jeopardised their health (e.g. the eating of a margarine rather than butter or an emphasis on the low-fat, high-carb diet). Occasionally (though not commonly) someone will ask why our Governments or health agencies would want to mislead us.

It’s a perfectly reasonable question. My answer is that sometimes people are wanting to give us good advice but are just ignorant of the facts. See here for what I believe to be an example of this. The campaigning surgeon involved here may well believe that saturated fat causes heart disease. On the other hand, I have difficulty believing that all the scientists within the company who put him up (Unilever) are so blind to the truth.

Unilever has, as it happens, appeared to enjoy a quite-cosy relationship with the Food Standards Agency here in the UK. For example the now-disbanded FSA Advisory Committee on Research was chaired by someone who received funding from Unilever, and a member of the committee also happened to be a full-time employee of Unilever. The last chairman of the FSA (Dame Deirdre Hutton) it turns out also had a substantial shareholding in a major food company. Guess which one? No, go on, guess.

Only this week, two academics quit an FSA steering group over the FSA’s support of GM crops. One, director of the organisation Genewatch, “left in protest at the agency’s links with the agrochemical business, claiming that its so-called debates were nothing more than ‘a public relations exercise on behalf of GM companies’”. The other has accused the FSA of a ‘failure of institutional integrity’. You can read more about this fiasco here.

Does this mean we should reject out of hand what our Governments and health agencies tell us. No. But when the advice does not fit the facts, it’s worth bearing in mind that industry has the capacity to exert influence at the highest level. It also, it appears, has the capacity to put profit before public health.

References:

1. Cohen D, et al. WHO and the pandemic flu “conspiracies”. BMJ 2010;340:c2912

2. Godlee F. Conflicts of interest and pandemic flu. BMJ 2010;340:c2947

8 Responses to BMJ investigation exposes corruption and conflicts of interest within the World Health Organization

  1. Cynthia 4 June 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    What about the UN and its vegan agenda? http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jun/02/un-report-meat-free-diet I find it hard to believe that pastured animals would cause all the pollution and consumption problems they contend are due to raising animals for meat. GM crops are the answer clearly, in the opinion of the UN and their advisers. But who stands to benefit from worldwide adoption of “modern” agriculture? And why is there no call to stop feeding grain to animals? They don’t actually want to improve the situation, only to promote a vegan agenda IMO.

  2. Radiant Lux 4 June 2010 at 11:19 pm #

    There have been such allegations against the Centers for Disease Control in the US about vaccines. I haven’t seen any investigative work about the recent pandemic propaganda. The people who run these organizations should be completely transparent and have not industry ties. That’s not the world we live in, though.

  3. Chris 10 June 2010 at 8:40 pm #

    “At times of crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain for all to see. Surplus capital and surplus labour exist side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together in the midst of immense human suffering and unmet needs.” [David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital, p215.]

    Harvey goes on to introduce the term ‘creative destruction’. He means it as the (often) unintended and irrational means to the resolution of the problem of surplus absorption. It is, “the destruction of the of the achievements of preceding eras by way of war, the devaluation of assets, the degradation of productive capacity, abandonment, and other forms of ‘creative destruction’. It is put forward as an irrational rationalising force. The Second World War is quoted as one of the greatest episodes of creative destruction in human history.

    It has been suggested here and there that we seem to live in a time where some people prosper from making people ill then some other people prosper from taking up with with peoples misery. So one industry profits from the sale of unhealthy food and another profits from the administering of drugs to manage the unhealthy conditions that the people consequentially suffer. [1] Burgeoning and inefficient intuitions exist between the two. Many of us acknowledge is is going on but we have no name for it. How like Harveys’ suggested ‘creative destruction’ is it? Who would disagree that the sale of cigarettes and tobacco is a kind of ‘creative destruction’? Do sugary sodas or fatty snacks fall in a similar class? The facets I highlight are destructive in the present rather being a devaluation of past achievements. To distinguish I wonder if the term ‘creative absorption’ might be applicable.

    The tobacco industry stands as as a towering example of creative absorption. The cigarette came to market as an innovation that exemplifies creative absorption by stealth since it was largely unappreciated just how detrimental to health smoking would be. The risks are now known and accordingly continued legitimate sales of tobacco constitute a phase of legitimized (or state approved) creative absorption. Profits from cigarette sales reward a capitalist agenda, then consequence provides employment in the health service, and further opportunities for commercial engagement.

    I used to mistakenly think that advancements in science would serve the interests of the people. Parkinson and Langley recently reported that science is now massively influenced by the corporate agenda and one consequence is that low input solutions are overlooked in favour of commercially expedient ones. It is far more expedient for the corporate agenda to work upon the development of ‘vaccines’ against breast cancer, or for highly skilled surgeons to investigate the possibility that ‘one hit chemo’ can be administered within the breast, than it is to unravel the environmental agonists (causes) of breast cancer in the first place.

    Authorities and regulators are supposedly formed and exist to foresee, manage, regulate, and protect the people from risk. Am I alone in wondering if such institutions are largely impotent? Once established do these committee governed bureaucracies most effectively satisfy the aggregate of the incremental economic needs of those that they engage? Do they subconsciously only ever set out to manage ‘issues’ as a preference to actually solving ‘problems’ because they know intuitively that solving the problem would, in part, put members out of work? Do such institutions and bureaucracies also serve self interest by the extent to which they network with fellow bureaucracies? Prof. Bruce Charlton thinks such bureaucratic expansionism and impotence is cancerous and he extends his critique to the process of peer review.

    I am just a simple guy. For me to advance thoughts like this is akin to psychosis. I don’t know, but does the notion of ‘creative absorption’ have any pertinence to the BMJ editorial and observations of our Food Standards Agency?

    Just to be clear, my sentiments are not especially anti-capitalist, rather they are a plea for the greatest failing of the agenda of the capitalists, the failure to see the need to temper free market competition with satisfactory traits of reciprocity within markets, is recognized and addressed in the hope of avoiding a looming public health and escalating funding crisis.

    [1] Dame Deidre Hutton declared interests in Unilever AND Glaxo SmithKline. Could she have known about creative absorption or did she and/or her close family members whose interests she declared simply recognise a profitable synergy by chance?

    Apologies, Dr Briffa, that I could not remain concise while submitting the comment.

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