While the WHO actions with regard to SARS was not without its critics, it has been largely viewed as a good example of a global administrative body asserting its independence and acting rapidly to avert a global crisis. That, however, may be changing: following the prominent role played by the WHO in the swine flu scare, and the low levels of infection that have since been observed, the behaviour - and processes - of the Organization in this and other putative health crises is being revisited. (See here for the Daily Mash's inimitable take on WHO and the swine flu pandemic).
Via the Guardian, we learn that a draft report being prepared for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), by UK Labour MP Paul Flynn, is very critical of the WHO's handling of the swine flu outbreak, effectively accusing the Organization of "crying wolf" over the issue, and thus risking public confidence in future cases:
In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health initially announced that around 65,000 deaths were to be expected. In the meantime, by the start of 2010, this estimate was downgraded to only 1,000 fatalities. By January 2010, fewer than 5,000 persons had been registered as having caught the disease and about 360 deaths had been noted...
This decline in confidence could be risky in the future... When the next pandemic arises many persons may not give full credibility to recommendations put forward by WHO and other bodies. They may refuse to be vaccinated and may put their own health and lives at risk.
Interestingly, at a public hearing of PACE's Committee on Social, Health and Family Affairs, Flynn has expanded his comments to previous actions taken by the WHO:
The world has been frightened by a serious of health scares – SARS, Avian 'Flu and now Swine 'Flu. We now know, in hindsight, that the fears that were aroused do not appear to be justified. So we want to know how decisions on pandemics are taken – are they taken on the best scientific, epidemiological evidence, or are they influenced by other interests? That is the basis of this complaint. With H1N1, did the WHO, once again, frighten the world without any substantial evidence?
It is, of course, this focus on decision-making procedures that is of most interest to us from a GAL perspective; as the Guardian article notes,
Flynn's draft accuses the WHO of a lack of transparency. Some members of its advisory groups are flu experts who have also received funding, especially for research projects, from pharmaceutical companies making drugs and vaccines against flu.
This ties in to claims that are being made in other fields, most notably that of climate change and the recent travails of the IPCC (on which more soon): given that the production of scientific knowledge is now such a crucial part of global governance in a number of very high-profile fields, are we to see the traditional models of academic scientific accountability (most notably peer review) make way for more robust provisions modelled on - indeed, representing a discrete branch of - administrative law?