By Daan de Wit
Translated by Ben Kearney
The Netherlands has an ongoing contract with Solvay Pharmaceuticals for the making of vaccines without additives. Because of the Swine Flu pandemic, Dutch Health Minister Klink asks the Dutch Health Council whether or not it would be important to pursue such vaccines for pregnant women. He receives no answer to his question. He nevertheless severs - with all of its accompanying financial consequences - the contract with Solvay. He signs new, secretive contracts with GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis, companies that make vaccines with additives - the so-called adjuvants. In The Netherlands everyone is receiving the same vaccine containing adjuvants - whether they are young or old, pregnant or not. What happened that caused Klink to make this decision?
'Minister Hoogervorst (Public Health, VVD) signed a contract with the pharmaceutical firm Solvay for the delivery of a vaccine for 16 million Dutch citizens in the event of a worldwide flu pandemic', reports NRC Handelsblad in 2006. In order to be able to deliver a flu pandemic vaccine quickly, 'it will be produced in Solvay's new cell tissue culture lab on the basis of tissue cultures instead of eggs'. Three years later the Volkskrant writes: 'Virologists meanwhile prefer pandemic vaccines with a so-called immune strengthener, a substance that creates broad protection against flu viruses in circulation. Solvay however does not yet have at its disposal a suitable strengthening agent'. Who are these virologists and what sort of influence do they have over Klink's decision-making?
The decision to choose vaccines with adjuvants was made by Minister Klink. This in spite of the fact that he got no answer from the Health Council to his question as to whether it's important to pursue vaccines without adjuvants as it regards pregnant women. And also in spite of the fact that ongoing contracts had to be broken. On what basis did the minister make his decision? When advice from the Health Council failed to materialize, he would have had to act on the basis of some other counsel. One of the most important advisors is a man who is quite familiar with the working of adjuvants. He tests these additives for the Erasmus Medical Centre and for Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline. And for Isconova, a company that produces adjuvants. Osterhaus knows quite a bit about the subject, he speaks on the topic at international symposiums: 'The Role of Adjuvants in Pandemic Preparedness'. Osterhaus views adjuvants positively. The advantage of these substances is that they augment the effect of the vaccine and save on the inoculum - the serum with the inactive virus. 'The key message is we need to go with adjuvants', says Osterhaus.
Conflicts of interest
Could Osterhaus have played a key role in the evolution of Minister Klink's decision-making process? How influential is Ab Osterhaus, and for whom does he exert this influence? This leads to another question - whether or not there are conflicts of interest. De Telegraaf interviewing Osterhaus: 'Slightly annoyed now: "As if I would have any interest in a flu epidemic and my stocks would rise in value as a result. Nonsense"'. But later it turned out that he owns shares worth 3% in the aforementioned Isconova. And that's not all, according to a revelation by the VPRO radio program Argos: Osterhaus has an almost 10% interest in ViroClinics. It's an enterprise connected with Erasmus University in Rotterdam, established by Osterhaus. ViroClinics did research into the Bird Flu virus under contract to GlaxoSmithKline, one of the two producers of the Dutch vaccine against the Mexican Flu. Osterhaus is also working as an advisor to the other vaccine manufacturer, Novartis. But the conflicts of interest don't stop here. The web of interests is being woven by a few big spiders. One of them is ESWI.
Web of interests
One spider in the web is the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza, ESWI. This 'multidisciplinary group of key opinion leaders in influenza' is quite active and takes itself very seriously, as evidenced by the 'revised 2006-2010 policy plan', a supplementary PowerPoint on the policy plan, the proposal for an Influenza Task Force, a busy event calendar, and the book 101 Questions and Answers on Influenza, with Ab Osterhaus as one of the two authors. Vrij Nederland writing about ESWI: 'This club of self-styled 'independent researchers' has been working for years to convince the world of the danger of a flu epidemic'. Chairman of the ESWI: Ab Osterhaus.
Financed by the pharmaceutical industry
The mission of ESWI is: 'To reduce the impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza in the European population by identifying and communicating with stakeholders and by facilitating interactions between them'. This then involves 'government representatives, the European Union, opinion leaders in public health, health care workers, international organizations and the pharmaceutical industry'. But the word 'stakeholders' in this case leaves a funny taste in the mouth. For ESWI is being financed by the industry, by ten pharmaceutical manufacturers. The organization is actually quite transparent about this. In a colorful brochure it states: 'ESWI is financed by pharmaceutical companies actively involved in the influenza field'. That means that ESWI is being paid from profits generated as a result of the advice that it gives to governmental authorities. Two of the ten pharmaceutical manufacturers that finance ESWI are GSK and Novartis, the companies that signed secret contracts totalling about 700 million euros with Minister Klink to produce vaccines to fight the Swine Flu. Yet the story of Osterhaus' influence and the conflicts of interest don't stop here.
Osterhaus returns in the next part of the series. It will also look at the World Health Organization (WHO), for whom Osterhaus is an advisor. The WHO and ESWI work in the same way - according to ESWI. This is quite remarkable, considering the role of the pharmaceutical industry with ESWI.