European health ministers are set to hold an emergency inquiry into whether pharmaceutical companies influenced government decisions to purchase vast stockpiles of unnecessary swine flu vaccines. The inquiry comes as European governments have announced they are being forced to sell the millions of excess doses they ordered from the companies during the height of the Swine Flu Panic.
This week Gerrmany, France and the Netherlands announced they would sell the excess H1N1 drug supplies they purchased. The revelations about how much those governments spent on the vaccine has caused a public outcry, particularly in France. The country had placed orders to spend €869 million on 94 million vaccine doses, even though the population of France is 65 million. Only 5 million French people have been vaccinated. On Monday the country announced it wanted to cancel 50 million of those orders. The UK is also in talks to cancel orders for an estimated 20 million doses of vaccine, though the government won’t reveal the total size of what it ordered.
In the response to the public furore over this huge public expenditure during an economic crisis, the Council of Europe is going to debate a resolution later this month accusing the drug companies of pressuring public officials to order the huge stockpiles for their own financial gain, exaggerating the risks of the flu. Perhaps most seriously, the resolution calls for an investigation into whether the drug companies influenced the decision by the World Health Organisation to declare Swine Flu a global pandemic, which in turn activated the huge contracts governments had signed with the drug companies.
So how serious is this investigation? Well for one thing it’s important to point out that the Council of Europe has nothing to do with the European Union. Confusingly, it is not affiliated with the European Council but is set up in a similar fashion to it, with various ministers from each country being sent to meetings. But the Council of Europe predates the EU and is larger than it, with members including Switzerland, Turkey, Russia and even Greenland. Unlike the EU it has no authority in and of itself, but rather is capable of forming agreements or institutions which member states can then sign up to if they wish (such as the European Court of Human Rights). To make things even more confusing, the EU itself is not a member of the Council, but it is set to join next year, making it a signatory to the human rights charter.
In other words, even if the Council does adopt this resolution, it doesn’t have any political or policy effect. But its symbolic effect could be significant. At a time of great public mistrust in government and severe economic uncertainty globally, the public is already primed to believe that a pandemic would be declared as a conspiracy for financial gain by corporations. And of course it doesn’t help that the disconnect between what H1N1 was predicted to be and what it actually was (just a very strong global flu) was so pronounced.
The governments will certainly say it was better to be safe than sorry, and they were acting on the best scientific advice available. And officials are still warning of a "third wave" of swine flu. But considering how much money stood to be made by the drug companies, it is probably a good idea to investigate what kind of influence they had in the early warning system