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Editor’s blog Friday 4 June 2010: WHO's not declared a conflict of interest, then?

An excellent piece of investigative journalism - a collaboration between the BMJ and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism - has revealed that the World Health Organisation failed to declare a crucial commercial conflict of interest on the part of scientists advising it about policy on swine flu vaccines.

Key scientists advising the WHO on planning for a flu pandemic had done paid work for pharmaceutical firms who stood to gain from the guidance these scientists were preparing. They declared these in published research papers during the period in question, but no declaration appeared in a 2004 WHO document that influenced policy.

The WHO has refused repeated requests to know how conflicts of interest were managed, although two of the scientists, told The Guardian, that conflict of interest forms are required prior to participation in any WHO meeting.

There was also a a secret 16-strong  “emergency committee” advising WHO director general Margaret Chan on declaring an influenza pandemic, whose members' identities are known only to people within WHO. Their possible conflicts of interest with drug companies are therefore unknown.

Despite repeated requests, the WHO has refused to provide any details about whether such conflicts were declared by the relevant experts and what, if anything, was done about them.

This report echoes a highly critical inquiry by Labour MP Paul Flynn on behalf of the Council of Europe.

This looks unbelievably bad.

Given that we know that serious research scientists find it very difficult to avoid taking pharma industry funding in some way, shape or form, the existence of conflicts of interest in specialised areas such as swine flu is not surprising or very newsworthy. The conflict of interest declaration process exists to manage it, and does so well.

It was clear that the sums of money involved in producing global stockpiles of this vaccine would be huge. Why did the WHO not think about what it was doing in failing to declare the conflict of interest?

It would surely not have been beyond the wit of one of these world-class scientists to think about this, either.

The total commercial impact on the NHS of stockpiling and distributing vaccines is thought to have cost over £1 billion, despite concerns about the efficacy of market-leading examples of the vaccine.

And we've got a stockpile of 34 million doses.

Oh good.