The World Health Organization has released the names of the experts making up its H1N1 emergency committee along with, crucially, their declaration of interests.
Previously the WHO has faced criticism for not releasing these names. Conspiracy theories suggest there could have been collusion between some emergency committee experts and the pharmaceutical industry to award valuable vaccine contracts.
This noise reached its peak with an article in the BMJ earlier this year which rightly noted that the emergency committee advises on the declaration of a pandemic but wrongly claimed that it was this declaring of the pandemic that triggered vaccine contracts. (See: Flu experts rebut conflict claims).
On its part, the WHO maintained that not releasing the names helped buffer the committee from any outside pressure. Now the names are out in the public domain, after yesterday’s announcement that the pandemic is over.
Neil Ferguson, an advisor to the committee named along with the members, told Nature, “I would have been perfectly happy for my name to be made public but I understand the reasons the WHO gave for keeping names confidential.”
Ferguson, who works at the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at London’s Imperial College, adds, “The one lesson that perhaps should be learned is the conspiracy theories show the need for transparency in scientific committees. In retrospect there were perceived issues with transparency and maybe the balance should be drawn differently next time. That’s really for the WHO.”
Committee member Arnold Monto, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says “The lessons are that if possible, full disclosure is the appropriate way to go.”
Extreme rhetoric about the WHO’s connections with the pharmaceutical industry (my favourite being The pandemic that never was: Drug firms ‘encouraged world health body to exaggerate swine flu threat’ courtesy of the Daily Mail) may reduce the willingness of scientists to offer advice when asked, says Monto. Preventing experts from industry, academia and the WHO from working together could harm all parties, he says.
“What we may be undermining is a relationship that exists between industry and public health. If industry doesn’t produce the vaccines we wouldn’t have vaccines,” he says. “I don’t think being totally without connection is either necessary or desirable.”
The WHO is currently conducting its own review of how it handled the H1N1 pandemic. It has already named the members of its review committee.
Ferguson declared having previously worked as a consultant for Roche and GSK Biologicals, stopping this in 2007. Monto declared current and past consultancies in influenza for GSK, Novartis, Roche, Baxter and Sanofi.
In case it needs spelling out: no member declared anything that might be considered even slightly out of the ordinary for an expert on influenza.