Despite some mistakes, the World Health Organization handled the flu outbreak well.
Earlier this month, Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, confirmed two things that many scientists already knew to be true: the H1N1 influenza pandemic is over, and the world was lucky. A disease that could have mutated into a highly lethal strain turned out to be comparatively mild.
Chan also reiterated that the WHO needs to review its handling of the pandemic. It should certainly revisit its decision to grant anonymity to the experts who sat on its emergency committee, and who wielded huge control over the decision to announce a global public-health emergency. The WHO insists that anonymity was necessary to prevent committee members from being influenced. But it helped to fuel accusations that members from industry were just trying to sell more vaccine. In retrospect, openness would have tempered that criticism.
The WHO finally released the names of the committee members on 11 August. And, as critics alleged, several of them have links to industry. But it would be shocking if they did not. Pharmaceutical companies play a key role in the response to pandemics, and they control a wealth of research knowledge on drugs and vaccines. But for the WHO to withhold their names until now caused unnecessary self-inflicted damage.
This should not distract from the post-pandemic verdict that the emergency committee, the WHO and its allied national health agencies around the world deserve praise — and our thanks. Throughout the crisis, they generally walked the difficult line between hype and dangerous understatement with aplomb. Although vaccines proved hard to make and their distribution could have been improved, the level of coordination between various bodies and researchers is heartening.
Of course, mistakes were made. But those who handled the world's response to H1N1 deserve better than false accusations of industry self-interest. Governments, industry and academics worked well together when faced with a potentially disastrous threat — and will hopefully do so when called upon again.
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Characteristics of and Public Health Emergency Responses to COVID-19 and H1N1 Outbreaks: A Case-Comparison Study
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2020)