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Parsing caution and corruption in the case of the H1N1 pandemic declaration

It was a sensational allegation echoed Friday by Britain’s Daily Mail and the Washington Post: In the heat of the H1N1 scare, opportunistic drug firms encouraged the World Health Organization to exaggerate the virus’ threat.

Sensational but baseless, argued an article that appeared yesterday in Nature and the Scientific American:

To judge from media coverage last week, a major scandal had been exposed in the handling of the H1N1 flu pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). But nothing could be further from the truth.

The Daily Mail and Washington Post articles covered two investigations: one by a journalist at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit, and the other by the health committee of a human-rights organization based in France. Both investigations focused on two points: the fact that the WHO kept secret the names of its public health emergency committee, and the fact that the WHO revised its criteria on what constitutes a pandemic in April of 2009.

The Nature article points out several fallacies in the investigative reports, while highlighting the irony that regulatory bodies are being faulted simultaneously for exercising too much caution in some cases and too little in others:

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard School of Public Health, says that the WHO's advice on the pandemic has been sound, and has reflected the state of scientific opinion. Comparing the situation with the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Lipsitch says that "it is ironic, as we watch for the second time in five years the catastrophic results of 'best-case scenario planning' in the Gulf of Mexico, to have the WHO coming under criticism for planning for, and raising awareness of, the possibility of a severe pandemic. That is what public-health agencies should do, and what most did in this instance, and they should be commended for it."

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