Archive June 2010

WHO hits back at conflict of interest claims Peter Griffin Jun 08

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This just came through from the World Health Organisation, which is clearly smarting after concerns were raised by the British Medical Journal about key pandemic advisors to the WHO having links to pharmaceutical companies that weren’t publicly disclosed.


Below you will find a copy of the letter Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) sent to the editors of BMJ in reference to their article on conflicts of interest at the WHO

To the Editors,

In the editorial accompanying the feature on conflicts of interest at WHO ,, the author notes that it is ’almost certainly true’ that the mildness of the H1N1 pandemic, compared with the severity long expected from a virus like H5N1, has contributed to the current critical scrutiny of WHO’s decisions. As the editorial further states, this reality does not make it wrong to ask hard questions.

We fully agree. Good investigative journalism brings problems, and their potential consequences, into sharp focus and identifies the need for remedial action. Potential conflicts of interest are inherent in any relationship between a normative and health development agency, like WHO, and profit-driven industry. WHO needs to establish, and enforce, stricter rules of engagement with industry, and we are doing so. However, let me be perfectly clear on one point. At no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making.

I take issue with the assumption that WHO simply dismisses these hard questions as unfounded. In January 2010, I suggested that a Review Committee, an independent mechanism under the International Health Regulations, be used to evaluate WHO’s performance during the influenza pandemic. This recommendation was accepted by members of the WHO Executive Board, and the Committee’s work began on 12 April 2010. The Committee agreed to address criticism currently being levelled at WHO as part of its evaluation. I have publicly expressed my desire to see a critical, independent, and transparent assessment of WHO’s performance.

The implication that WHO provoked unjustified fear also needs to be addressed. The record is otherwise, and not a matter of interpretation. On 11 June 2009, when I announced the start of the pandemic, I drew attention to the fact that the worldwide number of deaths was small, and clearly stated that we did not expect to see a sudden and dramatic jump in the number of severe or fatal infections. In every assessment of the pandemic, WHO consistently reminded the public that the overwhelming majority of patients experienced mild symptoms and made a rapid and full recovery, even without medical treatment.

Concerning the members of the Emergency Committee that advised WHO on the pandemic, including phase changes, the names will be released when the Committee finishes its work, as has always been intended. Our decision not to make these names public was motivated by a desire to protect the experts from commercial or other influences. The members themselves welcomed this decision as a protective measure, and not as an attempt to veil their deliberations and decisions in secrecy. Records of all Emergency Committee meetings were kept, and these and all other documents pertaining to WHO’s pandemic decisions and actions have been placed at the disposal of the Review Committee.

Without question, the BMJ feature and editorial will leave many readers with the impression that WHO’s decision to declare a pandemic was at least partially influenced by a desire to boost the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. The bottom line, however, is that decisions to raise the level of pandemic alert were based on clearly defined virological and epidemiological criteria. It is hard to bend these criteria, no matter what the motive.

Accusations that WHO changed its definition of a pandemic in order to accommodate a less severe event (and thus benefit industry) are not supported by the facts. The current pandemic preparedness plan, which includes phase definitions, was finalized in February 2009 following two years of consultations. A new strain of H1N1 was neither on the horizon nor mentioned in the document.

A full record and timeline of events leading to the publication of the 2009 plan have been placed at the disposal of the Review Committee. Should this Committee decide that the current definition of a pandemic and the phases leading up to its declaration need to be tightened or otherwise revised, this will be another recommendation that we will welcome, and act on.

Dr Margaret Chan


World Health Organization

Can Apple make video calling popular? Peter Griffin Jun 08

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Take a look at the mobile phone you own – does it have a camera on the front of it?

If it does, chances are that its capable of making video calls. That’s right, another feature they stamped all over the box that you never actually use – and for good reason.

To date, video calling on mobile phones has been a pretty average experience. Video calling was initially a much-hyped feature introduced with the first wave of 3G phones. I remember reviewing 3G handsets for the Herald back around 2006-7 when the mobile operators still expected them to be a major revenue-earner. It was uinreliable, awkward to use and trying to keep your face in view of the camera while your callers face appeared as a blotchy purple blob on a tiny screen wasn’t a very satisfying experience.

Ready for some FaceTime?

Ready for some FaceTime?

Instead, people kept texting and while video calling has been bundled into calling plans from the likes of Vodafone, I am yet to actually see someone making a video call to another mobile user – other than journos trialing the service so they can write up a review of it. That’s despite camera resoulution improving and video calling essentially becoming a one-button action. What has become big in the intervening years, spurred on by web cameras being increasingly built into laptops and even desktop computers, is video-calling via the likes of Skype, Windows Live Messenger. Everyone gets webcamera calls between computers, but the video on the phone is a different story.

So the debut of Facetime, a new feature of the revamped iPhone version 4 that allows video chat between iPhone users – and potentially users of Windows Mobile and Google Android phones too, is a curious addition for the company that didn’t see much point in putting a video camera on the front of the iPad version 1 – something that in combination with Skype would have been incredibly useful.

Facetime is one of the headline new features of the iPhone 4, along with a high-definition camera, an incredibly high resolution screen and multitasking functionality. Intriguingly, Apple appears to have created FaceTime with the potential to make it compatible with other types of phones. Apple obviously realises that third party software players like Skype and Fring are increasingly attracting mobile users who want to make the occasional video call on their phone.

But as the Mercury News has pointed out, there’s a major drawback already – Facetime is currently only available via Wi-fi and only on the iPhone 4 – more pain for early adopters:

Apple itself touched on what’s probably its biggest shortcoming at the event Monday: It will work only over Wi-Fi. That limitation automatically restricts where you can use FaceTime. So while Apple touted the ability to share special moments with your friends and family, you better make sure those moments happens near a hotspot. If they don’t, you can’t share them. In other words, don’t expect to show grandma your son or daughter’s soccer game anytime soon.

Apple said it’s talking to its wireless carrier partners, including AT&T in the U.S., about being able to use FaceTime over their networks, but it also said that at least for this year, it will be Wi-Fi only. And the wait could be longer, given the problems networks have had in supporting the amount of bandwidth iPhone owners already use.

Fundamentally, do people want to video chat to each other on their mobile phones? Not really, I don’t think. There’s a certain self-consciousness to being on the phone that really governs people’s use of mobiles. It has to do, to some extent, with privacy, but I think in general people are just more comfortable talking on the phone and sending short messages, than having a face to face video call – especially in public.

But there is a market for this. As one blogger has pointed out, video blogging, video surveillance and even video dating have  potential. If anyone can bring it to the mainstream it is Apple. But I don’t see the dominance of text messaging diminishing anytime soon. There’s something about the convenience, speed and brevity of tapping out a text that will keep it a major part of the mobile user’s toolkit for some time to come.

On thing is for sure – Skype will be worried. Finally someone is on the scene who may be able to pull off the near-impossible and make video-calling on the mobile fly…

Smattering of science in Queen’s honours list Peter Griffin Jun 07


There were not too many scientists named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. It would always have been hard to top last year, when two of our top scientists, Professor Peter Gluckman and Professor Paul Callaghan were knighted following the reintroduction of knighthoods and dameships.

Here are the scientists and medical researchers I identified on the list – let me know if I’veleft anyone out!

Dr Helen Anderson (Queen’s Service Order – Companion)

The most high profile is probably that of Dr Helen Anderson, the former chief executive of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, who recently stepped down from the role she had held since 2003. Dr Anderson was recently made a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand.Dr Anderson recently joined the board of DairyNZ.

Dr Hylton Legrice OBE (Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

A distinguished ophthamologist and businessman who was given the honour of Officer of the British Empire in 1996. From Dr Legrice’s bio on the University of Auckland website:

After spending his intern years in Auckland he attended the Royal College of Surgeons of England, in London. Passing the Part One Fellowship examination, he was appointed Registrar at the Croydon Eye Unit in London where over a three year period he achieved comprehensive surgical experience under the tutelage of one of the pioneers of microsurgery of the eye, Dermot Pierse. Dr. LeGrice then spent the next three years as Senior Registrar at Moorfields Eye Hospital City Road, London and passed his Final FRCS examination soon after taking up this post. He was ultimately appointed Senior Resident Surgeon where he was in charge of the Senior Registrar establishment at Moorfields City Road.

On returning home he took up the post as a part-time Visiting Specialist Surgeon to Auckland Hospital, as well as setting up in 1968 his own private consulting practice in Remuera. In 1970 he was appointed as Foundation Clinical Lecturer and soon after, as Foundation Clinical Reader in Ophthalmology at the Auckland School of Medicine. As a solo figure, without even clerical assistance, he established, and then conducted the first undergraduate teaching programme in Ophthalmology in Auckland. Dr. LeGrice continued in this teaching post for the next thirteen years until Dr. Gillian Clover was appointed full-time lecturer in 1983 and ultimately became Associate Professor.

Professor Terry Healy (Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

The one person the list honours for “service to science” is the University of Waikato’s Professor Terry Healy. aResearch Professor in the Earth and Ocean Sciences department at the University of Waikato.

From Professor Healy’s bio: Professor Healy’s teaching interests lie primarily in the field of applied coastal sedimentation processes, particularly relating to dredging impacts and dredge spoil monitoring, muddy depositional processes, and extend to the wider fields of coastal engineering; coastal hazards, planning and conservation; coastal oceanography, marine geology, and climate change.

Since the early 1980s at University of Waikato Professor Healy has lead the development and offering of a strong coastal earth sciences undergraduate programme and at M.Sc. level a full specialty programme in Coastal Marine Science.

Associate Professor Philip Charles Morris Yock (Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

Professor Yock, an astrophysicist at the University of Auckland,  is honoured for services to astronomy. His research interests include: unified gauge theories, deep inelastic scattering at high Q2, unbroken symmetry, gamma-gamma interaction, plasma Wakefield acceleration, gravitational lensing, extrasolar planets, stellar atmospheres, dark matter, MOA, gamma ray bursts and Antarctic astronomy.

His recent publications are listed on the University of Auckland website.

Who if anyone got to the WHO? Peter Griffin Jun 04


Did scientists with links to “big pharma” fuel fear about pandemics at the World Health Organisation resulting in a massive spend-up on antiviral drugs?

UPDATE: BMJ coverage now online here.

It sounds like a conspiracy theory the anti-vax movement would dream up, but according to a joint investigation between the British Medical Journal and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there may be some genuine cause for concern. There certainly was a lack of disclosure around scientists who were advising the WHO who also had links to big pharmaceutical companies that also manufacture flu vaccines. The Guardian carries news on the investigation here.

The article points out:

An investigation by the British Medical Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the not-for-profit reporting unit, shows that WHO guidance issued in 2004 was authored by three scientists who had previously received payment for other work from Roche, which makes Tamiflu, and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), manufacturer of Relenza.

City analysts say that pharmaceutical companies banked more than $7bn (£4.8bn) as governments stockpiled drugs. The issue of transparency has risen to the forefront of public health debate after dramatic predictions last year about a swine flu pandemic did not come true.

BMJ editor Fiona Godlee concludes in her editorial, which should be up on soon:

As for WHO, its credibility has been badly damaged. Recovery will be fastest if it publishes its own report without delay or defensive comment; makes public the membership and conflicts of interest of its emergency committee; and develops, commits to, and monitors stricter rules of engagement with industry that keep commercial influence away from its decision making.

And this from the BMJ release (abstract for the report is here):

The investigation finds that the WHO’s 2004 guidance on the use of antivirals in a pandemic was prepared by an influenza expert who had received payment from Roche, manufacturers of oseltamivir (Tamiflu), and GSK, manufacturers of zanamivir (Relenza), for lecturing and consultancy work. The guidance concluded that … ’countries should consider developing plans for ensuring the availability of antivirals’ and that they ’will need to stockpile in advance, given that current supplies are very limited.’

In addition, the investigation found two other scientists who prepared annexes to the WHO 2004 pandemic guidelines had recent financial links to Roche.

According to Deborah Cohen of the BMJ and Philip Carter of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the WHO did not publicly disclose any of these conflicts of interest when it published the 2004 guidance. It is not clear whether these conflicts were notified privately by WHO to governments around the world, many of which followed its advice.

This lack of transparency is compounded by the existence of a secret ’emergency committee’ which advised WHO’s director general Margaret Chan on declaring an influenza pandemic. Significantly, the names of the 16 committee members are known only to people within WHO, and as such their possible conflicts of interest with drug companies are unknown.

The lack of disclosure is a real concern. But I don’t think these revelations prove that the reaction to swine flu was overblown, as New Zealand experts on pandemics pointed out earlier this year. Still, this plays right into the hands of those suspicious of big pharma and by default, the vaccines these companies produce. Total transparency is paramount here and WHO, it would appear, has some explaining to do to put everyone’s mind at rest.

Meanwhile, back in New Zealand, some interesting research on swine flu has just been released. We did a round-up of expert comment on it at the Science Media Centre.

iPad accessory frenzy in Adelaide Peter Griffin Jun 01

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I happened to be in Australia on Friday as the Apple iPad went on sale there, predictably attracting shoppers who queued through the night at the George St Apple store in Sydney.

iPads a plenty at David Jones, Adelaide

iPads a plenty at David Jones, Adelaide

Adelaide, where I was, doesn’t have an official Apple store, but the iPads on offer were long gone by the time I got to the Next Byte store off Adelaide’s Rundle Mall. Apple wannabes pensively asked the shop staff if they had any more units available and lingered pitifully around the display units when told the iPad had sold out.

Ironically however just 30 metres down the street and three floors up, in the middle of the David Jones department store, sat a stack of iPads. It seems no one had thought to check in there for an iPad and/or David Jones completely dropped the ball on getting in on the iPad hype. After all, who goes to a department store to pick up gadgets anyway?

What really struck me however, is the huge rort that exists in iPad accessories. How about paying A$82 for a simple aluminium and rubber stand to prop up your iPad, or A$40 for a badly sewn nylon bag to carry your iPad around in? I saw both being snapped up by early adopters keen to kit out their iPads with accessories and happy to take the dregs of what was left over after the stampede had receded.

Padding out a sale

So just how much do accessories add to the price of an iPad? Forbes have done some calculations on this, estimating that the average iPad and accessories sale comes to US$650:

* It’s possible Apple will reach 2.5 million iPad shipments for the June quarter. We’re assuming that delays in production, as well as a general slow down lead to just 500,000 sold in June.

* Apple’s entire company only generated $1.8 billion in revenue during the June quarter of 2000, ten years ago.

* Assuming an average sales price (iPad and accessories) of US$650, that’s 1.3 billion in iPad revenue for Apple already, and could reach more than $1.6 billion for the quarter.

Now that probably assumes that the accessories sold are Apple-branded accessories, such as the keyboard dock or the official Apple leather folder. A range of vendors who made their name selling accessories for the iPod, such as Griffin (no relation, but it would be nice to have an iPad case inscribed with my surname!)and Belkin, are also selling iPad accessories. What is the potential market here? Well, you need only look at the accessorising fad that the iPod kicked off. This from the New York Times in 2006:

Last year, Apple sold 32 million iPods, or one every second. But for every $3 spent on an iPod, at least $1 is spent on an accessory, estimates Steve Baker, an analyst for the NPD Group, a research firm. That works out to three or four additional purchases per iPod.

Some of the accessories that came out in the early days of the iPod were incredibly useful – I had an adapter that turned the iPod into a dictaphone and an FM tuner that allowed me to use it through my stereo in the car. But early adopters need to beware when the iPad arrives in New Zealand late next month. The initial wave of iPad accessories contains some real duds – shoddily made gear at over-inflated prices.  Wait for supplies of the good stuff to replenish or for the iPad ecosystem to grow, which it rapidly will do, if the iPod is anything to go by.

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