The swine flu pandemic is officially not happening any more.
According to Intellectual Property Watch, the WHO has just declared that the pandemic threat of the H1N1 or “swine flu” virus has now passed.
The names of committee members involved in declaring the pandemic threat were kept secret at the time to prevent conflicts of interest, according to another IP Watch story, but have now been published.. This appears to show only trivial links with the pharmaceutical industry, but the WHO has announced a review of the procedures for declaring pandemics.
It doesnt look at all as if the drug companies paid the committee to spread scare stories. What is of more concern is the reporting from the media. How many reports did you see when the pandemic was declared? Contrast this with how many you saw about the decision to undeclare it?
It reminds me also of the volcanic ash situation (see this posting.), although in this case the actual response was under- rather than over-estimated.
The real problem seems to be experts addressing a technical question in isolation. Often this is a poorly or badly defined technial question. According to IP Watch, the WHO Director “… acknowledged that
there was “wide agreement among experts” that the WHO’s six pandemic phases (which measure increasing threat level of influenza viruses) should be reviewed, in particular the issue of severity as part of the definition of a pandemic threat. The definition of a pandemic is one of the areas for which the WHO has come under fire.”
Meanwhile there are reports of rich countries having far more vaccine than they can ever use. Apparently the US vaccination programme cost $1.6 billion, and betwen 72 and 81 million people were immunised. Officials made inflammatory statements: “”We were dealing with a very unusual situation. We had a pandemic. We had young people being killed…. We wanted to make sure we had enough. We didnt want to be short. It was important to us to be able to protect the American people.” Its all very similar to the statements made by Condoleazza Rice about US extraterritorial renditon – “I would ask people, should we rather than let known terrorists wander the streets to commit their crimes? It is not good enough to say we cant do these things, even though they fall within international law or an international practice. And then when a terrorist attack takes place say, Well, why didnt you do more?”.
But we cant handle large datasets safely, as I argued in that post, at least not until we think about them more and refrain from using figures to bolster arguments and create media scare stories to sell newspapers.