A panel of independent experts has harshly reviewed the World Health Organisation's handling of the 2009 epidemic of H1N1 swine flu, though it found no evidence supporting the most outlandish accusation made against the agency: that it exaggerated the alarm to help vaccine companies get rich.

The world is still unprepared to handle a severe pandemic, and if a more dangerous virus emerges, “tens of millions would be at risk of dying,” the panel said in its draft report, which was posted on an obscure corner of the WHO's website. Although millions of doses of vaccine ultimately went unused, the panel found “no evidence of malfeasance.”

The virus appeared severe during its spring outbreak in Mexico City, and it was not clear how relatively mild it really was until late summer, “well past the time when countries would have needed to place orders for vaccine,” the panel said. Later, when rich nations donated 78 million doses for use in poor ones, the health agency could not deploy them because it was bogged down in negotiations with vaccine companies over liability and costs.

The panel, which has experts from 24 countries and is led by Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, criticised the agency's “needlessly complex” definition of a pandemic, which had six levels of alert, based on the virus' geographical spread, not its severity.

Some advisers had done research for the vaccine industry, and those potential conflicts of interest “were not managed in a timely fashion,” the report said. Nonetheless, it concluded, “No critic of WHO has produced any direct evidence of commercial influence on decision-making.”

The WHO will not respond to the report until the final version is released in May at the annual assembly of the world's health ministers, a spokeswoman for the agency said. — New York Times News Service

Keywords: WHOepidemicH1N1swine flu

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