Health experts will begin examining the controversial response to the first influenza pandemic of the 21st century, nearly a year after global alarm was raised over the new swine flu strain.
The World Health Organisation is forming a panel of 29 external experts following accusations that the agency-led international reaction to A(H1N1) influenza was overblown and may have been tainted by commercial interests.
After the formative three-day meeting, the International Health Regulations review committee's work is expected to take about nine months, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said.
WHO Special Adviser on Pandemic Influenza Keiji Fukuda recently admitted that "we still have a lot of things to learn," including the way the risks posed by swine flu are communicated to the public.
However, specialists broadly defended the alarm over the discovery of A(H1N1) cases in Mexico and the United States in April 2009 as well as the WHO's declaration of a pandemic in June as the flu swiftly spread around the world.
'Criticism is political'
"I think they gave a terrific lead and were very authoritative. I think we have a lot to thank them for," John Oxford, a virologist and professor at the Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry in Britain, told AFP.
"A lot of the criticism is political. I've not heard criticism from any virologist," he added, also highlighting the need to cater for impoverished countries with poor surveillance, care and health conditions.
Parliamentarians conducting a Council of Europe probe have criticised the transparency of decision-making and especially the potential influence of the pharmaceutical industry on a decision last year to press for vaccination.
That inquiry was set up after several governments sought to cancel mass orders of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of swiftly developed special pandemic vaccines, when fears about the severity of swine flu died down.
British MP Paul Flynn, who is leading that probe, declined to comment before he meets WHO officials in Geneva on Thursday.
David Heymann, a former head of infectious diseases at the WHO who left the agency in early 2009, voiced concern about public reticence towards vaccination in generally healthy Western populations. - (Sapa, April 2010)