The WHO, the Pharma lobbies and Pandemics

Did it surprise anyone when in handling the Influenza A H1N1 crisis in 2009, the World Health Organization limited itself to informing us about what stage the outbreak was reaching until it became a full-blown pandemic? Does it surprise anyone today that the WHO does not recommend travel restrictions to Madeira, where a Dengue Fever epidemic is in full swing?

 Remember Swine Flu (Influenza A H1N1)? It was first reported in Mexico in April 2009, received a World Health Organization Phase 5 label within a week, by early May had passed all the criteria to receive a Phase Six alert (Pandemic) but this was only announced on June 11. Why? Why were travel restrictions not set in place from the outset? By the time the WHO made its tardy announcement, there were laboratory-confirmed infections in 74 countries in all the WHO Regions.

 Nice for whom? Why the Pharma lobbies, of course, eager to sell their (hastily-put-together) vaccines, the results of which are still hotly debated. The Surge Response Capacity, at the WHO level, which should have been the highest, appeared to be, on the contrary, the lowest, if not totally invisible. And this, despite the WHO's own guidelines that containment is the best policy to follow through Phases one to three, and mitigation after phase four (because the disease has already spread so widely that containment is no longer effective, and the approach is replaced by early detection and treatment).

 The WHO Phases


  • Phase 1: A virus in animals has caused no known infections in humans.
  • Phase 2: An animal flu virus has caused infection in humans.
  • Phase 3: Sporadic cases or small clusters of disease occur in humans. Human-to-human transmission, if any, is insufficient to cause community-level outbreaks.
  • Phase 4: The risk for a pandemic is greatly increased but not certain.
  • Phase 5: Spread of disease between humans is occurring in more than one country of one WHO region.
  • Phase 6: Community-level outbreaks are in at least one additional country in a different WHO region from phase 5. A global pandemic is under way. (*)

In the case of A H1N1, the WHO announced already on April 27, 2009, that the outbreak had reached levels that no longer justified containment (Phase 4). The question remains, had proper containment policies been put into place from the beginning of the outbreak, would A H1N1 have ever become a pandemic? Let us add a tag to the same question, would Glaxo-Smith-Kline's Relenza (zanamivir) and Roche Holdings' Tamiflu (oseltamivir) have sold so many millions of doses of their medication to limit symptoms (not infections)?

The side effects of these medicines are well documented, giving rise to another question: was their distribution hastily implemented, inadequately researched and hurried through from the laboratory to the doctors' surgeries without the proper systems of control? Why were billions of dollars spent in obtaining these medicines, only for up to half the stocks in some countries to have been destroyed (in 2012)?

It therefore comes as no surprise that the World Health Organization, today, does not recommend any travel restrictions to the Isle of Madeira, where Dengue Fever is endemic and has manifested itself in dozens of cases in recent weeks.

One wonders what the WHO will do when a new strain of flu, such as A H5N1, Avian Flu, finally manages to make the species leap and become transmitted from human to human. This highly pathogenic strain of the Influenza A virus has a mortality rate of up to 50 per cent, making it far worse than the Black Death.

May we postulate a scenario? The World Health Organization will inform us that a novel human-to-human transmitted strain of A H5N1 has appeared in (Laos) and will post symptoms on its website, along with the sentence "There is to date no vaccine or treatment for this strain, apart from the normal healthcare procedures implemented when treating Influenza". Phase 2 and Phase 3 will be announced within three days, within a week we will receive a shrug and a gesture of hopelessness with outstretched arms and the admission that the virus has spread so widely (Phase 4) that containment is no longer effective (when containment was never properly implemented).

Two major Pharmaceutical companies will announce that they have developed not only vaccines but also medication to reduce the severity of the symptoms, only this time we might not be so lucky. Half the world's population may die and a global economic crisis such as never been seen before may make the market-oriented capitalist model's banking and economic crises look like child's play.


(*) World Health Organization


Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey


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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey