Reconstruction of a Mass Hysteria The Swine Flu Panic of 2009
Part 2: 'Fine-Tuning' the Definition of Pandemic
When Chan reached her decision, she knew that dozens of countries, including Great Britain, China and Japan, had warned against prematurely raising the warning phase to 6. Hong Kong's health minister had said: "The system of pandemic levels needs to be revised." Epidemiologist Mackenzie says, in retrospect: "We need to fine-tune phase 6 so that the severity of the disease is also taken into account." In May 2009, even the WHO itself considered amending the criteria in the way Mackenzie suggested, but then it changed its mind.
The warnings faded away. Why? Because regulations are simply regulations? Because health officials decided to err on the side of caution? One thing is clear, though. A party with strong connections in Geneva had a strong interest in phase 6 being declared as quickly as possible: the pharmaceutical industry.
"The pharmaceutical industry did not influence any of our decisions," says Fukuda. But in mid-May, about three weeks before the swine flu was declared a pandemic, 30 senior representatives of pharmaceutical companies met with WHO Director-General Chan and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at WHO headquarters. The official reason for the meeting was to discuss ways to ensure that developing countries would be provided with pandemic vaccine. But at this point in time the vaccine industry was mainly interested in one question: the decision to declare phase 6.
Everything hung on this decision. At stake was nothing less than a move to supply large segments of the world's population with flu vaccine. Phase 6 acted as a switch that would allow bells on the industry's cash registers to ring, risk-free. That's because many pandemic vaccine contracts had already been signed. Germany, for example, signed an agreement with the British firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in 2007 to buy its pandemic vaccine -- as soon as phase 6 was declared. This agreement could explain why Professor Roy Anderson, one key scientific advisor to the British government, declared the swine flu a pandemic on May 1. What he neglected to say was that GSK was paying him an annual salary of more than 130,000 ($177,000).
In mid-June, 2009, the head of GSK's German division urged Health Minister Ulla Schmidt "to confirm the delivery stipulated under the contract as soon as possible." He also asked the health minister of the eastern state of Thuringia to "promptly provide us with binding confirmation of the contractually stipulated orders of the German states." Similar letters were sent to other German states.
July 4, 2009 : It's revealed that Rupert Grint has contracted swine flu. "At first I thought I was going to die," says the actor, who portrays the character Ron Weasley in the "Harry Potter" films, "but then I just got a sore throat."
July 14, 2009: In Germany , 727 people are officially infected, but no deaths have been reported.
August 2009: The Australian flu season has ended. In the absence of a vaccine, only 190 people have died by the end of the season -- a significantly smaller number than in a normal flu season.
Aug. 29, 2009 : A SPIEGEL survey shows that only 13 percent of Germans want to be vaccinated.
Sept. 7, 2009 , Offices of the State of Thuringia , Berlin
A special summit on Berlin's Mohrenstrasse. The state health ministers arrived, one after another. The purpose of the meeting was to decide whether more vaccine should be ordered. Everyone knew it was election season in Berlin, and Ulla Schmidt had made it abundantly clear that "everyone who wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated. I expect that the states will live up to their responsibility." The minister was extremely careful not to create the impression that she was depriving the population of anything.
It was a warm, late summer afternoon, but the mood at the meeting was icy. "Ahead of the crisis, the federal government placed us under massive pressure to order more vaccine," says Dietrich Wersich, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Hamburg's health senator. "But it was clear to all of us that there was very little willingness within the population to get vaccinated."
Meanwhile, a debate had erupted over whether Germany had chosen the wrong vaccine, Pandemrix. It contained a new type of agent designed to boost its effectiveness, known as an adjuvant, which had never undergone large-scale human trials in connection with the swine flu antigen. Were millions of people about to receive a vaccine that had hardly been tested? "This is a large-scale experiment on the German people!" warned Wolfgang Becker-Brüser, publisher of the medical journal Arznei-Telegramm.
In theory, says former PEI President Löwer, it would have been possible to approve an adjuvant-free swine flu vaccine in Germany. But the contracts for Pandemrix had been signed in 2007, and they came into effect automatically when the WHO decided to declare phase 6. Germany was in a bind.
The disgruntled state health ministers pointed out that the 50 million vaccine doses that been ordered had already cost the states half a billion euros. Was it truly necessary to order more, they asked?
The ministers felt pressured from all sides. On the one hand, the media were stoking fears of the virus. The German tabloid newspaper Bild, in particular, was printing new tales of horror almost daily. On the other hand, the pharmaceutical companies were upping the pressure and constantly setting new ultimatums.
'Miserable Advice' from the Health Institutes
The ministers attending the meeting in Berlin still remembered all too clearly how drug maker Roche had urged the German states to buy the flu medication Tamiflu. On April 30, at 3:28 p.m., the ministers had received an email from the Thuringia health ministry, under the subject line "Urgent: Roche offer." It read, "Roche has just informed us that it still has an inventory of 180,000 packages of Tamiflu. They are making this inventory available to the states until 4:30 p.m. today. Otherwise the inventory will be used to service other inquiries from wholesalers, etc." In fact, however, there had been no reports of any serious supply bottlenecks at any time.
The infectious disease experts at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and PEI were also applying pressure to the state health ministers. "We felt that we were getting miserable advice at the time," says Social Democrat Hermann Schulte-Sasse, a member of the Bremen State Council. "The institutes were no help to us in terms of preventing scaremongering."
Instead, the RKI and PEI were coming up with new alarming numbers. In June, the experts warned that Germany could expect up to 80,000 deaths, and "15 billion to 45 billion in lost production."
One of the health ministers at the Berlin meeting was outraged that the researchers had not told them about new studies that suggested a single vaccination appeared to be sufficient for the swine flu. If it was true, the states stood to save a lot of money, because the 50 million doses they had already ordered would be enough for 50 million people, not a mere 25 million people as described in the original plan. Ordering more vaccine would be unnecessary.
All eyes were on RKI President Jörg Hacker. "The random samples have been too small up to now," he said, seeking to downplay the issue. It was a situation for which Hacker -- a scientist, not a politician -- was poorly prepared.
If a single dose was sufficient, it meant not only that the states could manage with a lot less vaccine; it was also a strong indication that the population was by no means at the mercy of the virus. The dangers of swine flu, in other words, may have been far smaller than previously thought.
But the all-clear signal didn't reach anyone in the room. The ministers reluctantly agreed to keep an option to buy 18 million more doses of vaccine from yet another pharmaceutical company, Novartis.
Oct. 9, 2009: Wolf-Dieter Ludwig, an oncologist and chairman of the Drug Commission of the German Medical Association , says: "The health authorities have fallen for a campaign by the pharmaceutical companies, which were plainly using a supposed threat to make money."
Oct. 21, 2009: A BILD newspaper headline, printed in toxic yellow, warns: "Swine Flu Professor Fears 35,000 Dead in Germany !" The professor's name is Adolf Windorfer, and when pressed, he admits that he has received payments from the industry, including GSK and Novartis. Next to the BILD headline is an ad for the German Association of Pharmaceutical Companies.
Nov. 28, 2009 : The swine flu begins to subside in Germany . Hardly anyone wants to be vaccinated.
Dec. 8, 2009 : English road crews run out of grit to treat the country's icy roads. Paul Flynn, a Labour MP in the British Parliament, proposes using the government's unused Tamiflu pills instead. A study by the Cochrane Collaboration has shown that the flu medication was relatively ineffective.
Jan. 7, 2010: RKI President Hacker, warning of a new wave of the flu, says: "The vaccine is still needed because the virus is still here."
Jan. 26, 2010: Wolfgang Wodarg, a member of the German parliament, tells the European Council in Strasbourg that "millions of people worldwide were vaccinated for no good reason." According to Wodarg, the WHO's classification of the swine flu as a pandemic have earned the pharmaceutical companies $18 billion in additional revenues. Annual sales of Tamiflu alone have jumped 435 percent, to 2.2 billion.
March 5, 2010 : German states propose selling 10 million doses of surplus doses of the swine flu vaccine Pandemrix to Pakistan .
Early March 2010, WHO Headquarters
The SHOC room is now being used for other emergencies, including the coordination of aid for earthquake victims in Haiti. But often the room is empty.
The mood at the WHO has grown less tense. The press office is no longer staffed around the clock. The tent set up for journalists in the employee parking lot is gone. IT specialist Jered Markoff no longer receives phone calls in the middle of the night. And influenza expert Keiji Fukuda is happy to spend time on his hobby -- playing cello -- once again.
What was this pandemic? Was it all just "good practice for an emergency," as WHO advisor and industry lobbyist Osterhaus puts it? Did the authorities do everything right, as Australian epidemiologist John Mackenzie insists?
Certainly not. No one at the WHO, RKI or PEI should feel proud of themselves. These organizations have gambled away precious confidence. When the next pandemic arrives, who will believe their assessments?
Perhaps they should have followed the example of Ewa Kopacz, the Polish health minister. The 53-year-old physician, a member of the free-market Civic Platform, has a reputation for courting controversy.
When she stepped up to the podium in the Polish parliament, the Sejm, during its vaccine debate, she wore a bright-red dress -- her combat gear. "As a doctor, my first obligation is to harm no one," she said. For this reason, she added, Poland was not going to follow in the rest of Europe's footsteps. "We will not purchase any vaccine against the swine flu," Kopacz told the Sejm.
Politicians grumbled, but the health minister stood her ground. "Is it my duty to sign agreements that are in the interest of Poles, or in the interest of the pharmaceutical companies?" she asked.
Today, Europe can admire her steadfastness. About 170 people died of the swine flu in Poland, a much lower number than the annual death toll attributable to the seasonal flu.
A 1.3-meter (4'3") bronze statue weighing 70 kilograms now stands on the village square in La Gloria, in the mountains of Mexico -- a likeness of Edgar Hernandez, the miracle boy who first defeated the swine flu.
PHILIP BETHGE, KATRIN ELGER, JENS GLÜSING, MARKUS GRILL, VERONIKA HACKENBROCH, JAN PUHL, MATHIEU VON ROHR, GERALD TRAUFETTER
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: The Swine Flu Panic of 2009
- Part 2: 'Fine-Tuning' the Definition of Pandemic