Pharmaceutical Companies and Bird Flu

Certain allegations really hurt. The EU’s accusation that pharmaceutical companies deliverately overhyped the threat of bird flu to sell vaccine drugs is about as serious as it can get in reputation management terms. “Big Pharma” already has a reputation for hyping drugs, hiding clinical research results and generally doing nothing for the common good, now they are, effectively, being accused of making governments buy substantially more drugs than they would be needing. The UK has bought 90 million doses of Tamiflu, whilst Germany bought 94 million. The UK has only used 4 million of the doses so far.

The heart of the accusation is that by persuading their “stooges” in the WHO to declare the 2009 birdflu outbreak a pandemic, national governments were forced to implement emergency contingency plans that involved the purchase of huge batches of vaccines. A number of governments and organisations are announcing or demanding investigation into the role of pharmaceutical companies in the decision process.

Whilst we all love a good conspiracy, there is compelling codependency between WHO scientists and pharmaceutical companies. For example, Professor Juhani Eskola, the director of the Finnish research vaccine program and a new member of the WHO group ‘Strategic Advisory Group of Experts’ (SAGE), is directly involved with recommending which vaccines — and how many — member countries should purchase them for the alleged “pandemic.  According to documents acquired through the Danish Freedom of Information Act, Eskola’s Finnish institute, THL, received nearly 6.3 million Euros, ($9,049,760.00), from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) for “research” on vaccines during 2009. Not surprising, GlaxoSmithKline produces the H1N1 vaccine ridiculously named ‘Pandemrix,’ which the Finnish government — following recommendations from Professor Eskola  — purchased for their national pandemic reserve stockpiles. Likewise, the more than 6.3 million Euros that the WHO’s research center received from GlaxoSmithKline represents the WHO vaccine program’s number one income source.

All this is on the heels of another dramatic WHO scandal involving Austrian journalist Jane Burgermeister who revealed that the WHO conspired with Baxter International (another vaccine manufacturer) and the United Nations itself to produce and release live bird flu viruses in 2009, all in an effort to trigger the pandemic. Burgermeister has, in effect, accused the WHO itself planning to commit mass murder. (You can read more these allegations here)

These allegations are part of a wider reputation management problem facing all pharmaceutical companies. On the one hand they position themselves as selfless wellness companies, on the other hand, critics accuse them of being the nasty end of capitalism.  Pharma companies descry oversight that, according to them makes clinical research too expensive in both time and financial terms. At the same time, their critics accuse the companies of spending more on lobbying and influencing than they do on actual research. It is estimated that the industry spent $57.5 billion on marketing and promotion in 2004 alone far exceeding the $20 billion that was erroneously estimated by the most often quoted research firm, Integrated Medical Systems (IMS). The amount spent on research and development actually pales in comparison, at $31.5 billion. While the substantial evidence that the FDA is incompetent and inefficient, something that I have seen for myself; the pharma companies’ intense lobbying of all decision-makers and influencers is equally questionable. As Democratic congressman Sherrod Brown puts it,“ PhRMA [the major lobbying group] doesn’t need to lobby. The industry is in the While House already.”

The challenge for any pharmaceutical company is that they are all tarred with the same brush. If these allegations get proven, some companies face reputational meltdown, but increasingly the whole industry faces even greater oversight and a long awaited control on their lobbying and marketing spending.

  • Donald Rumsfeld is possibly one of the world’s most unpopular characters for his role in persuading President Bush to go after Iraq and the ensuing chaos in that country and his arrogant press conference performances

    Nice to know we have something else to wonder about him with the news that he is chairman of Gilead, a biotech company that developed and owns the rights to Tamiflu. Interesting that we now have a flu pandemic and Bush acolyte is in government.

  • Donald Rumsfeld is possibly one of the world’s most unpopular characters for his role in persuading President Bush to go after Iraq and the ensuing chaos in that country and his arrogant press conference performances

    Nice to know we have something else to wonder about him with the news that he is chairman of Gilead, a biotech company that developed and owns the rights to Tamiflu. Interesting that we now have a flu pandemic and Bush acolyte is in government.

  • Donald Rumsfeld is possibly one of the world’s most unpopular characters for his role in persuading President Bush to go after Iraq and the ensuing chaos in that country and his arrogant press conference performances

    Nice to know we have something else to wonder about him with the news that he is chairman of Gilead, a biotech company that developed and owns the rights to Tamiflu. Interesting that we now have a flu pandemic and Bush acolyte is in government.

  • john

    First of all, when most folks say “bird flu”, they mean highly-pathogenic avian influenza h5n1. This is the virus that we were all freaked out about in the mid 2000s, which has a case fatality ratio of around 60 percent. That’d translate into about 1.2 billion deaths in a pandemic, so yeah, various people took a certain interest in having some tamiflu. And if you have some info I’m not familiar with showing h5n1 to be suddenly un-dangerous, by all means, inform me. It’d certainly be a weight off my mind.

    Swine flu, on the other hand, is the decidely mild pandemic we’re dealing with right now. Though it does contain certain genetic bits of avian flu, it bears no relation to h5n1. We did not, however, know that when the first confused reports were coming in from Mexico (thousands dying of atypical pneumonia! Bodies stacked in the streets! Film at 11!). Since a novel flu virus (like h5n1) could kill as many people as an outright nuclear exchange, some serious talk of social distancing and hand-washing hardly seems uncalled for. Hindsight is nice and all, but you can’t just assume a brand-new respiratory illness will all work out in the end.

    And don’t conflate the media with WHO statements. When you go to the actual source, WHO repeatedly said that they were monitoring the situation, they didn’t know yet how bad it was, and washing your hands would probably be a good idea regardless. When people in the media speculated that the virus might cause cytokine storms, WHO quickly denounced it as an unfounded rumor. This hardly constitutes fear-mongering.

    I’m also unclear on which virus you accuse WHO of releasing. If its h5n1, that obviously didn’t happen, or we’d have noticed the billion dead people by now. If you’re talking about swine flu h1n1, that doesn’t wash either. WHO conspired to make h1n1 look horrible, knowing all along that it was basically harmless, and then they conspired to commit mass murder by releasing a harmless virus? How does that work?

  • john

    First of all, when most folks say “bird flu”, they mean highly-pathogenic avian influenza h5n1. This is the virus that we were all freaked out about in the mid 2000s, which has a case fatality ratio of around 60 percent. That’d translate into about 1.2 billion deaths in a pandemic, so yeah, various people took a certain interest in having some tamiflu. And if you have some info I’m not familiar with showing h5n1 to be suddenly un-dangerous, by all means, inform me. It’d certainly be a weight off my mind.

    Swine flu, on the other hand, is the decidely mild pandemic we’re dealing with right now. Though it does contain certain genetic bits of avian flu, it bears no relation to h5n1. We did not, however, know that when the first confused reports were coming in from Mexico (thousands dying of atypical pneumonia! Bodies stacked in the streets! Film at 11!). Since a novel flu virus (like h5n1) could kill as many people as an outright nuclear exchange, some serious talk of social distancing and hand-washing hardly seems uncalled for. Hindsight is nice and all, but you can’t just assume a brand-new respiratory illness will all work out in the end.

    And don’t conflate the media with WHO statements. When you go to the actual source, WHO repeatedly said that they were monitoring the situation, they didn’t know yet how bad it was, and washing your hands would probably be a good idea regardless. When people in the media speculated that the virus might cause cytokine storms, WHO quickly denounced it as an unfounded rumor. This hardly constitutes fear-mongering.

    I’m also unclear on which virus you accuse WHO of releasing. If its h5n1, that obviously didn’t happen, or we’d have noticed the billion dead people by now. If you’re talking about swine flu h1n1, that doesn’t wash either. WHO conspired to make h1n1 look horrible, knowing all along that it was basically harmless, and then they conspired to commit mass murder by releasing a harmless virus? How does that work?

  • john

    First of all, when most folks say “bird flu”, they mean highly-pathogenic avian influenza h5n1. This is the virus that we were all freaked out about in the mid 2000s, which has a case fatality ratio of around 60 percent. That’d translate into about 1.2 billion deaths in a pandemic, so yeah, various people took a certain interest in having some tamiflu. And if you have some info I’m not familiar with showing h5n1 to be suddenly un-dangerous, by all means, inform me. It’d certainly be a weight off my mind.

    Swine flu, on the other hand, is the decidely mild pandemic we’re dealing with right now. Though it does contain certain genetic bits of avian flu, it bears no relation to h5n1. We did not, however, know that when the first confused reports were coming in from Mexico (thousands dying of atypical pneumonia! Bodies stacked in the streets! Film at 11!). Since a novel flu virus (like h5n1) could kill as many people as an outright nuclear exchange, some serious talk of social distancing and hand-washing hardly seems uncalled for. Hindsight is nice and all, but you can’t just assume a brand-new respiratory illness will all work out in the end.

    And don’t conflate the media with WHO statements. When you go to the actual source, WHO repeatedly said that they were monitoring the situation, they didn’t know yet how bad it was, and washing your hands would probably be a good idea regardless. When people in the media speculated that the virus might cause cytokine storms, WHO quickly denounced it as an unfounded rumor. This hardly constitutes fear-mongering.

    I’m also unclear on which virus you accuse WHO of releasing. If its h5n1, that obviously didn’t happen, or we’d have noticed the billion dead people by now. If you’re talking about swine flu h1n1, that doesn’t wash either. WHO conspired to make h1n1 look horrible, knowing all along that it was basically harmless, and then they conspired to commit mass murder by releasing a harmless virus? How does that work?