Finnegan's Take

Later this month, the WHO will declare the H1N1 flu pandemic over

It was the first global flu pandemic in 41 years. It was going to affect one in three of us. Millions would die.

Or so we thought.

Now, with the World Health Organisation prepared to downgrade swine flu to a ‘phase 5’ pandemic – effectively meaning the flu pandemic is over – it’s time for reflection.

People are angry. Governments stockpiled millions of doses of vaccine and antiviral medicines which will soon be out of date. That money could have been spent on cancer research or hospital equipment.

The authorities have been accused of over-reacting; industry and the media are accused of hyping the risk.

The WHO is likely to come up with a more sensitive system for rating pandemics – one that takes account of how dangerous a virus is rather than just how many continents it has spread to. It will also have to beef up its guidelines on transparency and conflicts of interest.

But, from a European perspective, the most important lesson is that national governments were too busy thinking about domestic politics when they should have been working on an EU-wide solution. Viruses know no borders.

The problem is an old one: Brussels dare not overstep its competence by straying into health policy.

Europe was fortunate to get away with this line of thinking. A more lethal virus would have swept across the continent last winter while ministers were dragging their feet.

They should have agreed a European procurement deal with vaccine manufacturers. They should have come up with an arrangement for vaccine sharing between member states. They should have used their massive bulk-buying bargaining power to secure favourable terms with pharmaceutical companies. They should have sorted out who would be liable if problems arise with the vaccine.

Maybe next time. For now, we should count ourselves lucky that H1N1 was a relatively forgiving virus.

[I interviewed Zsuzsanna Jakab, the newly-appointed Director of WHO Europe, yesterday. See here for a full transcript. Jakab was head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control during the peak of the pandemic]

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