What the WHO?

Why Should We Trust WHO with World Health?

The World Health Organization (WHO) was founded as a UN agency in 1948. With an annual budget now exceeding $7 billion, its top objective according to its constitution is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.” That’s a nice, lofty goal. I doubt anyone would take issue with it. But given that member states fund the WHO and that ordinary people worldwide are affected by its declarations, one can reasonably ask questions.

A few years ago, German filmmaker Lilian Franck travelled to WHO headquarters in Geneva to see what she could find out about this purportedly altruistic body. The result, Trust WHO (2016), is an alarming picture of a bloated, opaque organization, thoroughly infiltrated by industry lobbies and rife with conflicts of interest.

According to her coverage, it was that way almost from the start. For example, by the 1950s, studies showed that smoking was bad for health. You would think the WHO would’ve been out in front informing the public about tobacco harm, but they were not. Why not? We can only speculate, but Franck produces documents showing years-long connections between WHO consultants and advisory experts tied to tobacco interests. She also examines WHO’s tepid response in 2011 to Fukushima fallout following an earthquake and tsunami in the Pacific.

Both raise questions about WHO diligence toward some health threats, but WHO activities regarding the 2009 H1N1 (“Swine flu”) outbreak demonstrate that the agency can be quite proactive about other health-related matters.

When H1N1 first appeared on the scene, WHO estimated it would affect two billion people, or some 25 percent of the global population – predictions that proved to be wildly off. Perhaps even a body of “experts” can be forgiven for overreacting early on when there are lots of unknowns, but according to Franck’s research, there had been more going on ahead of H1N1 than made the headlines. In turns out that confidential contracts had been drawn up in advance between pharmaceutical companies and WHO member nations that obligated the signatory countries to purchase Swine flu vaccines.

When asked about the contracts, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl defended them on the grounds that they have to be prepared in the event that there is a real worldwide threat. “It is extremely easy to after the fact say, well maybe X should not have done Y, and A should not have done B. However, think about the opposite. What would have happened had the influenza killed 50 percent of the people it infected and there was no vaccine? Then you and others would be standing here today getting really mad at us for not having made vaccine a possibility.”

Well, okay, there will always be Monday morning quarterbacks…

Back to the vaccine purchase agreements, they included a condition. The signatory countries were only obligated to purchase the vaccines if the WHO issued a Pandemic “Level 6” alert. One of the criteria for declaring a Level 6 pandemic involved a death-count threshold, but the H1N1 death count did not rise to the threshold. This would be welcome news, right? If you’re looking at it from a world health standpoint, it would be. For a manufacturer sitting on a stockpile of unsellable vaccines, though, maybe not so much.

And then, sometime during the course of H1N1, something, well, interesting happened. The criteria for declaring a Level 6 pandemic changed. The death-count parameter was removed, and the old guidelines quietly disappeared from the WHO website. And then the WHO declared H1N1 a Level 6 pandemic.

Franck asked German Velasquez, who had been serving as WHO General Secretary in the Department of Public Health at the time, about this mid-pandemic change in the definition of a pandemic. “Could they have declared the pandemic Level 6 also with the old definition?”

“No,” Velasquez said, “because the severity, the number of deaths, would have been a factor. Since that was no longer one of the criteria, it made it easier to declare a pandemic.” He also noted that WHO insiders weren’t overly concerned about H1N1. “Nobody there was afraid,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone at the WHO who had himself vaccinated, including the Director-General.”

Franck tracked down Marie-Paule Kieny, a member of the WHO Swine flu working group. Why were the criteria changed? Kieny, who had worked for the French pharmaceutical company Transgene before joining the WHO Swine flu working group, gave a circuitous answer that effectively distilled to, “the experts thought it would be better to proceed that way.”

So, let’s recap. In 2009, we had a novel virus appear that posed a certain level of threat. And in the midst of the virus making its way around the world, the criteria distinguishing one level of threat from another were changed on the fly. Preparations were made for a major bio-disaster, and when it didn’t come to pass, one was arbitrarily declared, even as WHO insiders saw no cause for alarm.

Kieny said the H1N1 Working Group redefined the criteria for a Level 6 pandemic on the advice of experts. Who might those experts have been? Wolfgang Wodarg is a former German delegate to the European Council who is also a physician and epidemiologist. Here’s what he had to say.

Glaxo, Novartis, Sanofi, they had all launched new production programs to produce the vaccine for this [H1N1] pandemic. They had all made agreements with the nation states. And since they had invested so much in this but couldn’t sell the vaccine because there was no pandemic, and no sign of flu outbreak, they fabricated a pandemic.

WHO officials have no idea about such things. They have to depend on scientists, and the scientists are allocated to them by the countries and by the organizations that finance the WHO. And many of them gave advice and made decisions that benefitted the pharmaceutical industry.

After the H1N1 episode was over and these matters were becoming visible to those with eyes to see them, Wodarg asked Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, how the WHO planned to improve transparency and disclosure of conflicts of interest going forward. She agreed with him – emphatically, in fact – about the need for accountability. Then she added in a moderately dictatorial tone, “We must recognize that in this twenty-first century, no government can provide everything to their people. So, you do need to work with the industry. But work in a way that there is no room for conflict of interest.” It was a typical bureaucratic non-answer.

Trust WHO is a full-length documentary in the style of gumshoe reporting. Franck makes a heroic effort to get information out of working WHO officials and consultants, and for the most part, the ones she does get on the record either talk around the question or defend their actions (often both) in some manner that provides plausible deniability.

“[The WHO] isn’t obligated to supply us with any information,” Wodard said. “[It] can operate in a very clandestine fashion.” If these things are true, the question we should all be asking is, What has the WHO done for us lately? And Whose interests does the WHO serve?

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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