The Council of Europe will launch a probe into pharmaceutical companies after reports that vaccine manufacturers pressured the World Health Organization into declaring swine flu pandemic seeking increase in profits.
It was supposed to be a deadly pandemic, but is so far is nothing more than a serious cold.
And it has left a lasting headache as a debate rages over whether pharmaceutical companies deliberately misled governments about the seriousness of swine flu to make them stockpile vaccines.
The legal standards organization, the Council of Europe, will gather the arguments.
“Britain has spent a fortune on preparations,” says Paul Flynn, Vice Chairman at the Council of Europe Health Committee. “We have caused a great deal of stress to the population, people are very anxious about it, and we’ve distorted the priorities of our health service. I believe when we have a thorough investigation, and we look at this, we’ll discover that’s the story – the world has been subjected to a stunt for the own greedy interests of the pharmaceutical companies.”
European countries bought billions of dollars worth of vaccine from pharmaceutical companies including Baxter, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi-Pasteur. Some of the contracts included a clause where governments could get out of buying the drugs if they were no longer needed. But some, notably ones with GlaxoSmithKline, did not.
“We continue to support governments in managing the H1N1 influenza pandemic. This includes ongoing discussions about existing orders for our pandemic vaccines,” reads the officials statement from the company.
Governments all over Europe are now saddled with billions of dollars worth of unnecessary swine flu vaccine. They are trying to sell it, but supply now far exceeds demand. So because governments wanted to be seen to be acting decisively, the European taxpayers have found themselves seriously out of pocket.
Health expert Gawain Towler says pharmas will be pharmas, and it’s governments who should have been less gullible.
“Pharmaceutical companies of course have a huge economic interest in encouraging concern over health,” Towler says. “I think you have to blame the governments for going along with it, for not having natural scepticism of the claims of someone who has a financial interest. The government itself wanted to be seen to be doing something. And in that way, they encouraged the fear that then forced them to act.”
At the height of the pandemic, it was predicted that around 65,000 people in Britain would die. So far, there have only been 360. Critics of the World Health Organisation, which dubbed swine flu a pandemic, say it was clear from early on that the illness wouldn’t be as serious as first thought.
Also, it was initially believed that two vaccinations would be needed to protect against the virus. Later, it was found that one was enough. Now European governments are coming under fire for wasting billions of dollars on vaccines that would never be used.
“This does seem to be a massive waste of money of course. It’s the responsibility of the government to look out for these kinds of crises as they’re approaching,” says Mark Wallage, campaign director at Taxpayers’ Alliance. “And of course, governments around the world were ordering vaccines and so on, but no one seems to have gone as over the top as much as Britain has. Yet again, Britain has led the world in wasting taxpayers’ money on a threat that either hasn’t materialized, or has turned out to be very different from the way it was anticipated.”
Council of Europe Health Committee Chairman Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg also says the declaration of a swine flu pandemic was a false alarm.
“There are many signs that there is close cooperation between the WTO and pharmaceutical companies. We have to find out whether there was pressure or whether there was money given as an incentive to the WTO to have this pandemic declared,” Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg adds.
Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK say they want to sell off their stockpile of vaccines. While there are countries willing to buy, the passing of the global threat, and millions of doses flooding the market, means prices for the vaccine will plummet. And the epidemic’s initial misdiagnosis means it may be a very expensive mistake.