Pharma vendors in swine flu inquiry

13 January 2010

13 January 2010 I Amy Rowe

Drugs suppliers face claims that they encouraged European governments to waste money on stockpiles of unnecessary swine flu vaccinations.

Members of the Council of Europe are to hold talks over whether pharmaceutical companies used alarmist tactics during the height of the swine flu pandemic to secure large-scale orders of the vaccine.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Baxter are among the companies expected to come under scrutiny at the meeting on 28 January.

Wolfgang Wodarg, chair of the council’s sub-committee on health, is reported to have said that the problems lay in orders placed in advance of the pandemic.

“The producers of vaccines are sure of enormous gains without having any financial risks. So they wait until the World Health Organization (WHO) says ‘pandemic’ and activate the contracts,” he said.

Both GSK and Baxter have refuted the accusations. A spokesperson for GSK said claims of “undue influence” over government health officials were misguided and unfounded, while Baxter said it had not had a role in the WHO’s decision to declare a pandemic.

GSK said: “The WHO declared that H1N1 swine flu met the criteria for a pandemic. Responding to it has required unprecedented collaboration. As the WHO has stated, legal regulations and numerous safeguards are in place to manage possible conflicts of interest.”

The UK’s Department of Health (DH) also rebuffed the claims. “The UK response to swine flu has always been based on the independent scientific advice available at the time. In addition, we know that the cost of a severe pandemic to the country has the potential to be extremely high. The investment in antivirals and vaccines was made on that basis, to insure the country against the risks posed,” said David Salisbury, director of immunisation.

Last summer the UK’s chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson said that in a worst-case scenario 65,000 people could die from swine flu. Public health agencies in the UK report 358 deaths so far in total, with another 393 patients in hospital with the flu at present in England.

The DH is now looking to sell surplus supplies. It is thought that as many as 20 million doses of Tamiflu were ordered at the height of the swine flu outbreak.

GSK confirmed it was in negotiations with the UK government about alterations to its present contract and has already agreed with Germany to reduce future supplies of the vaccine by around 30 per cent to 34 million doses.

France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain are also believed to be in talks with vendors to modify deals for the vaccine.

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