Independent experts from 24 countries gathered during the past month to discuss and assess the World Health Organization’s handling of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009. The panel reviewed the W.H.O. harshly, despite not affirming controversial accusations that it exaggerated its reactions to help vaccine companies get rich during the outbreak.
In its draft report released Thursday on the W.H.O.’s website, the panel claimed that the world has always been unprepared to handle severe cases of pandemics, and if a more fatal virus arises, millions of lives will again be risked.
The disease was interpreted to be severe in the spring outbreak last year. It was not until the summer, past the assumed climax of the disease when countries felt the need to place orders for the vaccine, that the mildness of the situation was clarified and confirmed.
Also the 78 million doses of vaccine donated by rich countries to poor ones were not distributed, since the W.H.O. was tangled in liabilities and costs conflicts with vaccine manufacturing companies.
This resulted to millions of vaccines going unused and wasted. Despite this trouble, the panel said that there is “no evidence of malfeasance.”
The panel, led by Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, criticized how complex the health organization defines a pandemic, how it describes the level of a pandemic depending on how geographically wide it spreads and not on how severe the pandemic in one place is.
It also criticized how the W.H.O.’s expert advisers’ names were held in secret to avoid pressure and thus produced “suspicions that the organization had something to hide,” as well as how potential conflicts of interest “were not managed in a timely fashion.”
How the disease’s severity was communicated was also inefficient, the panel concluded, and the pandemic produced confusion in people with W.H.O.’s “ill-advised” communication and how it responded “with insufficient vigor.”
The panel did not offer only plain criticism. Members of the panel also praised how W.H.O. identified the swine flu virus quickly with the help of national health agencies of countries including Canada and the United States.
Although the draft is already published, the W.H.O. will not respond to the report until the final version of it is released at the assembly of the world’s health ministers in May, a spokeswoman for the organization said.