Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Pandemic That Never Was

By Jennifer O’Connell

I swore I wouldn’t get sucked in. I wrote a 4,000 word article urging others not to get sucked in.

I pointed out that the only people who would benefit from the mounting hysteria surrounding swine flu were shareholders in the pharmaceuticals companies involved in manufacturing the vaccines.

I obediently recited the numbers who die from seasonal flu annually without ever being immortalised in newspaper headlines. I pointed out that if you weren’t feeling sick before you started taking Tamiflu, you sure as hell would be afterwards.

And then, inevitably, I got sucked in.

My mildly asthmatic toddler son was among the first in the queue for the swine flu vaccine. My perfectly healthy three year old daughter and I trotted along obediently to our GP when her turn came a few weeks later.

It wasn’t so much that I changed my mind: my concerns were never about the safety of the vaccine which, as vaccines go, seems very safe indeed. Rather, I resented being talked into a state of fear about what was, after all, only a flu.

And yet, within days of my article appearing, the niggling doubts started. What if my son ended up with the pneumonia that almost hospitalised him last year? What would I do if some of the children in my daughter’s nursery came down with swine flu? What if one of us caught it and infected someone else, like – God forbid - a friend who was undergoing chemotherapy?

Every time a headline about another swine flu death appeared, my throat tightened. Long after I had finished my research and published the piece, I found myself googling terms like ‘H1N1 vaccine safety’.

Before the vaccine had even come to market, I had made up my mind.

And then last week I came across a story which suggested I should have trusted my instincts – not the knee-jerk, hysterical ones of the 21st century parent, but the better informed and perhaps more cynical ones which whispered that too many people had too much to gain from the outbreak of a new, frightening influenza.

Later this month, the Council of Europe will conduct an investigation into the pandemic that never was.

Wolfgang Wodarg, head of health at the Council of Europe, has accused the World Health Organisation (WHO) of being influenced by drugs companies in its decision making.

The swine flu outbreak was, he argues, a “false pandemic” driven by the drugs companies which stood to make billions of pounds from a worldwide scare. It was “one of the greatest medical scandals of the century.”

As millions of people were vaccinated against a relatively mild disease, pharmaceutical firms made “enormous gains”, and countries “squandered” their meagre health budgets.

His detractors will argue that, on the contrary, the availability of the vaccine ensured the pandemic never got out of control. And, who knows, they may even – to an extent - be right.

But that’s not really the point.

The point is that the virus itself is no more serious than any other influenza – except that it is less likely to infect the very old, and poses a slightly greater risk of complications to the very young, or to those about to give birth.

A recent paper in the British Medical Journal revealed that early, terrifying predictions of very high mortality rates were entirely unfounded . "Our estimate of the case fatality rate compares favourably with those in the three 20th century influenza pandemics. The rate in the 1918-19 H1N1 pandemic was 2%-3%. Rates in the subsequent pandemics (1957-58 and 1967-68) were in the order of 0.2%." The fatality rate for this pandemic is 0.026%.

The most recent figures show that swine flu has been responsible for just 12,799 deaths worldwide since last March – 2,500 of these in Europe. In Ireland, 22 people have died from swine flu. By contrast, between 250,000 and 500,000 people worldwide die from ‘normal’ flu each year.

Wodarg’s motion is not based on some crackpot conspiracy theory. In order for the swine flu outbreak to achieve pandemic status, the World Health Organisation had to make two significant changes to its definition of ‘pandemic’ –  namely, that the virus no longer had to have mutated, or have a high morbidity or a high mortality rate.

The Council of Europe has passed a resolution calling for an investigation into precisely why the WHO went to such lengths.

Wodarg’s suspicion – that it was doing so under the influence of big drugs firms – isn’t so far-fetched. He claims that during the “atmosphere of panic” of the avian flu scare of five years ago, governments started stockpiling Tamiflu, and putting in place ‘sealed contracts’ for millions of doses of vaccine - so that, as Wodrag puts it: “The producers of vaccines are sure of enormous gains without having any financial risks … they just wait until WHO says ‘pandemic’, and activate the contracts.”

And boy, were those gains enormous.

GlaxoSmithKline expects to make £1bn revenue in 2010 for sales of its vaccine Pandemrix, and Relenza, which treats the symptoms of swine flu.

Cash tills were also ringing at Roche, which made billions in 2009 from sales of its anti-viral drug Tamiflu – in total, according to JP Morgan, world governments have spent $3 billion stockpiling Tamiflu since last spring; the US has spent another $1.5 on the drug since 2005.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Tamiflu was doled out like Smarties to people with suspected swine flu in Britain, the US and elsewhere; you didn’t even need to see a doctor to get it, despite it coming with a spectacular list of side effects from vomiting to heart problems to psychosis.

And all this without any evidence whatsoever that Tamiflu actually works. In fact, Roche has gone to great lengths to conceal data that would allow scientists to review its effectiveness. The data which is available shows no compelling evidence that it can prevent healthy people with flu avoiding hospitalisation or suffering complications such as pneumonia, according to a recent study in the British Medical Journal.

This month, the Council of Europe will later this month begin debating Wodarg’s motion which aims, he says, to ensure that “none of the pharmaceutical companies under any circumstances must be allowed to make their influence felt on pandemic emergencies” in the future.

It is also likely to examine claims of more direct links between the WHO and a number of the big pharmaceuticals – senior WHO advisers who have allegedly received funding from private industry.

When the hysteria about swine flu, bird flu, or lesser spotted albatross flu, starts up again next autumn, I may well march my children off to our GP surgery again.

But at least I will be doing so for the right reasons – my own peace of mind, mainly - and not because the drugs companies frightened me into it.

Next time, I really won’t get sucked in.

This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on January 17, 2010


  1. Excellent. Missed it in the papers, because I miss everything in the papers. If it wasn't for Twitter I'd never see what was in the papers at all. Shame that blogging is dead or I might've read it here:)
    I love it when numbers skewer skullduggery. @RonanLyons does it on his blog all the time, and of course @bengoldacre uses this kind of fuckery as oxygen. It does need to be exposed as much as possible though, although when mass hysteria is released (as it so clearly was here) it becomes very, very hard to put the genie back in the bottle, even on a personal/family level. And forget about winning the fight on a macro level. Roche, Pfizer, GSK et al are way too dug in for that. Hunter S said the question wasn't whether or not you were paranoid, but whether you were paranoid enough. The Constant Gardener and Michael Clayton aren't fanciful unlikelihoods imo, so all you can do is go with your instincts. And maybe we won't march off to the surgery so quickly next time, and maybe we will, but we'll do some independent research either way.

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