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Doctor had strong financial motives for launching MMR-autism scare, investigative report finds

Last week, as I reported here, journalist Brian Deer published a detailed investigative article in the BMJ about how former British surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield manipulated the data of his now-notorious (and retracted) 1998 Lancet paper to suggest a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.

As BMJ editor Fiona Godlee noted in an accompanying editorial, Wakefield’s paper “was in fact an elaborate fraud.”

This week, in a second BMJ article, Deer provides evidence of a strong motivation for that fraud: money. Big money. For although Wakefield failed to disclose it when his Lancet paper was published, he was actively involved at the time in establishing several potentially lucrative autism-related medical businesses.

He and his investors wouldn’t make a dime, however, unless the MMR vaccine could be shown to be linked to what Wakefield declared was a new syndrome of brain and bowel disease — “autistic entercolitis.” (The existence of this syndrome is now considered highly dubious.)

For one of his business ventures, Wakefield planned to develop his own “replacement” vaccine for MMR. For another, he intended to develop and sell testing kits that would let doctors diagnose autistic entercolitis. In a business prospectus for investors, Wakefield said the testing kits alone would generate $44 million in annual revenues.

He also said the initial market for the kits would be the “litigation driven testing of patients with AE [autistic entercolitis] from both the UK and USA.”

Wakefield knew something about the big money that could be earned from vaccine litigation. Before he published his Lancet paper, he had received the British pound equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars from a law firm involved in product liability suits against vaccine makers — another fact he failed to make public at the time.

Some of Wakefield’s business efforts were put into motion long before he knew the results of his research for the Lancet paper — even before the first child in the study had been fully medically investigated, Deer reports.

For Wakefield, therefore, a lot of money rode on whether or not his research findings supported a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Within months of the publication of the 1998 paper, officials at University College London, where Wakefield worked and conducted his research, became concerned about possible conflicts of interest and about the scientific strength of the methodology behind his research. They offered to give Wakefield funding to confirm his findings with a larger group of children. (The original paper had included only 12 children.) At first he agreed, but then he declined, claiming, strangely, that his academic freedom would be somehow jeopardized.

Wakefield left UCL in 2001. Deer quotes Wakefield’s former boss as saying that they paid him to “go away.”

As Deer also reports, Wakefield’s original findings have never been duplicated by independent researchers.

The details reported by Deer (from documents he obtained under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act) are quite damning. You’ll have to read his entire article to get the full weight of them. I’d like to add one more detail to my summary, however.  Wakefield’s supporters often claim that the pharmaceutical industry is conspiring to ruin Wakefield because his research poses a threat to their multi-billion-dollar vaccine sales. Well, Deer has uncovered evidence showing that until questions arose about the validity of his research, Wakefield actually had support from such drug-industry giants as Johnson & Johnson, Merck and SmithKline Beecham. And, on at least one occasion, Axcan Pharma Inc. paid for his first-class trans-Atlantic airfare.

Not that those facts will change Wakefield’s pedestal-status among his supporters.

On Thursday, Dr. Gregory A. Poland and Dr. Robert M. Jacobson of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester published a brief but illuminating history of anti-vaccinationists in the New England Journal of Medicine. In it they write that “even though more than a dozen studies have demonstrated an absence of harm from MMR vaccination, Wakefield and his supporters continue to steer the public away from the vaccine. As a result, a generation of parents and their children have grown up afraid of vaccines, and the resulting outbreaks of measles and mumps have damaged and destroyed young lives.”

You’ll find Deer’s latest investigative article here and the NEJM commentary here.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Nancy Hokkanen on 01/14/2011 - 01:46 pm.

    Last week media called Andrew Wakefield “anti-vaccine.”

    This week media castigate him for wanting to develop and promote a vaccine.

    Which is it?

    The bottom line is that consumers lost a potentially safer vaccine choice, and the MMR manufacturer maintains market share.

  2. Submitted by Nancy Hokkanen on 01/14/2011 - 01:50 pm.

    MinnPost might want to consider the possibility that this month’s coordinated pharma-funded media blitz is worth closer scrutiny, rather than simply repeating press releases.

    Or one might at least consider reading what the BMJ’s target has to say by way of explanation….–

    Statement From Dr. Andrew Wakefield: No Fraud. No Hoax. No Profit Motive.

    AUSTIN, Texas, Jan. 13, 2011 /PRNewswire/ — Dr. Andrew Wakefield issued the following statement today on the recent British Medical Journal articles:

    “The British Medical Journal and reporter Brian Deer recently alleged that my 1998 research paper was ‘a hoax’ and ‘an elaborate fraud’ and that my motivation was profit.

    “I want to make one thing crystal clear for the record – my research and the serious medical problems found in those children were not a hoax and there was no fraud whatsoever. Nor did I seek to profit from our findings.

    “I stand by the Lancet paper’s methodology and the results which call for more research into whether environmental triggers cause gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression in children. In fact, despite media reports to the contrary, the results of my research have been duplicated in
    five other countries (to see citations to studies, visit

    “It is not unexpected to see poor reporting and misinformation coming from Brian Deer, the lead reporter of the recent BMJ coverage. But to see coverage in other media that cites Deer’s shoddy journalism in the BMJ as a final justification to claim there is no link between vaccines and autism is ludicrous. The MMR is only one vaccine of the eleven vaccinations on the pediatric schedule that has been studied for causing developmental problems such as autism. That is fact, not opinion. Any medical professional, government official or journalist who states that the case is closed on whether vaccines cause autism is jumping to conclusions without the research to back it up.

    “I continue to fully support more independent research to determine if environmental triggers, including vaccines, are causing autism and other developmental problems. The current rate of autism is 1 in 110 children in the United States and 1 in 64 children in the U.K. My goal has always been and will remain the health and safety of children. Since the Lancet paper, I have lost my job, my career and my country. To claim that my motivation was profit is patently untrue. I will not be deterred – this issue is far too

    Contact: Esther Bochner,, 212-643-6816×224

    SOURCE Andrew J. Wakefield

  3. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 01/14/2011 - 03:03 pm.

    “Not that those facts will change Wakefield’s pedestal-status among his supporters.”

    Very true. The really sad part is that many of the Wakefield apologists are the parents of autistic children. Not only do they have to deal with the challenge of dealing with autism on a daily basis, but they are exploited by frauds like Wakefield. This guy has made a career profiting by selling (false) blame and (false) hope to people who are desperate for both. The irony is that Brian Deer – the target of the wrath of these people – in seeking out the truth, has done far more to help autistic children and their families then Wakefield and his apologists have ever done.

  4. Submitted by Jerri Johnson on 01/14/2011 - 04:11 pm.

    While journalists and councils debate whether all the children had autism diagnoses or not, and whether they truly had “bowel disease” or not, and when the onset of symptoms started relative to the MMR vaccine, what no one is disputing is that Dr. Wakefield found that 12 children with developmental disabilities who had severe and chronic GI disturbances, did in fact have measles virus in their gut. Not the regular measles virus, but the vaccine strain of measles virus. That is why Dr. Wakefield concluded that more research is necessary to explore this issue. This is the central fact of the case series, and it has been corroborated by five other studies.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/15/2011 - 09:14 am.

    Man, this is such a perfect window into the minds of “believers”. And it’s such a perfect window into what goes wrong with the way we report and discuss science in this society. I would recommend a book: When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger. It’s hard to to find but it’s well worth the effort.

  6. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 01/15/2011 - 12:30 pm.

    “what no one is disputing is that Dr. Wakefield found that 12 children with developmental disabilities who had severe and chronic GI disturbances, did in fact have measles virus in their gut.”

    Did you miss the part where Wakefield has been exposed as a fraud who falsified data? At this point, it isn’t about disputing any of his particular “findings” but simply not taking anything he did or said seriously.

  7. Submitted by PJ Carroll on 01/16/2011 - 11:28 am.

    I attempted to post a comment here a couple days ago, and for some strange reason, my comment never appeared. I’m going to try again.

    I find it interesting that you have a blurb about supporting high-quality journalism under this article, when this article is actually a perfect example of poor-quality journalism!

    Most of the information in this post is taken from what someone else wrote – in OPINION pieces.

    This is a type of “journalism” that has become all too common today, where reporters play a game of “telephone”. They repeat what they’ve heard from someone else, who heard it from someone else, and so on. Each time, the new reporter feels the need to add their own little embellishments (to make the story their own, of course) so by the time people read the fourth or fifth interpretation of the original story, the facts are completely twisted.

    Here’s a fact: A recent study from CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan finds that 89 percent of parents think vaccine safety is the most important topic in medical research today.

    Dismissing the concerns of those parents isn’t working. People are smart enough to do their own research, and thankfully they can go directly to the source these days, rather than believing what some reporter copied from someone else.

    The U.S. government has paid out over 2 billion dollars in compensation over the past 25 years to families who’s children were injured or killed by vaccines. And it is estimated that only 1-10% of adverse reactions to vaccines are even recognized or reported.

    Even though compensation HAS been paid out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for vaccine-induced autism, the CDC continues to assure people that vaccines don’t cause autism. They actually expect people to continue to believe that vaccines can cause lifelong seizure disorders, severe brain damage, paralysis, mental retardation and death (among many other things) but they surely can’t cause autism!

    Yeah, right.

  8. Submitted by Christine Richardson on 01/18/2011 - 06:34 pm.

    Please check out this responsible source.

    It is breath-taking that you folks, Wakefield true-believers, more than likely are not immunologists, or PhD vaccine researchers or medical doctors, or for that matter, have much understanding at all in applying the scientific method, yet you have the great wisdom to defend his very poor, wrong and fraudulent ‘findings’. Autism is much more complex than this…. there is no facile causation that can be claimed at this time. Do yourself a favor, keep supporting GOOD research on behalf of these struggling families, look for the very best research, the best journals and reputable authorities (without commercial conflicts of interest), unload the paranoia and conspiracy theories that motivate you, and admit what you don’t know. You have not spent your life studying vaccines and immunology. And he’s a fraud. Get over it and do some good.

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