BMJ Reveals How the Doctor Who Claimed There Was a Link Between Vaccines and Autism Planned to Cash In
By Peter Russell
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Keith Barnard, MD
Jan. 11, 2011 -- Andrew Wakefield, MD, the disgraced doctor who claimed there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism and bowel disease, planned to make a vast amount of money as a result of the health scare, according to a new report in the journal BMJ.
It's the second exposé by investigative journalist Brian Deer, who has spent seven years interviewing key players and following the paper trail.
1998 Lancet Study
The 1998, a study by Wakefield and colleagues in the Lancet attracted worldwide media attention and sparked a health scare that led to a drop in the number of children getting the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine.
In 2004, 10 of the 13 authors of the research paper retracted their interpretation of their findings. The Lancet retracted the paper in February last year, accepting that the claims made in it were false.
In January 2010 the UK's General Medical Council (GMC) decided that Wakefield had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly," a ruling that led to him being struck off the medical register four months later.
In the first part of his investigation, Deer showed how Wakefield was able to manufacture the appearance of a medical syndrome that would hoodwink parents and large parts of the medical establishment with a fraud that "unleashed fear, parental guilt, costly government intervention, and outbreaks of infectious disease."
In the second part, he shows how the discredited doctor planned secret businesses intended to make huge sums of money, in the U.K. and the U.S., from his allegations.
The BMJ report says that Wakefield met medical school managers to discuss a joint business even while the first child to be fully investigated in his research was still in the hospital; and how just days after publication of his Lancet article, he brought business associates to his place of work at the Royal Free Medical School in London to continue negotiations.
Drawing on investigations and information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Deer says Wakefield and his associates used financial forecasts that predicted they could make up to £28 million (about $43.7 million) a year from the diagnostic kits alone.
Deals Could Have Netted Millions
The kits in question were for diagnosing patients with autism. Deer obtained one 35-page document marked "private and confidential" which confidently predicted: "It is estimated that by year 3, income from this testing could be about £3,300,000 rising to about £28,000,000 as diagnostic testing in support of therapeutic regimes come on stream."
Would-be investors were told that "the initial market for the diagnostic will be litigation-driven testing of patients with AE [autistic enterocolitis, an unproven condition concocted by Wakefield] from both the UK and the USA".
Deer's investigation also reveals that Wakefield was offered support to try to replicate his results, gained from just 12 children, with a larger validated study of up to 150 patients, but that he refused to carry out the work, claiming that his academic freedom would be jeopardized.
A further claim in the BMJ article is the existence of a business, named after Wakefield's wife, which was intended to develop his own "replacement" vaccines, diagnostic testing kits, and other products which only stood any real chance of success if public confidence in the MMR vaccine was damaged.
Thanks to the recent publication of the General Medical Council's hearings transcript, the BMJ has been able to peer-review and check Deer's findings and confirm extensive falsification in the Lancet paper.
"We had access to a six million word transcript of the General Medical Council, which laid out all these children's medical [records] in extraordinary detail and in exceptional certain forensic circumstances," Deer tells WebMD. "It enabled us to do a reliable case-by-case comparison of what the true position was with regards to the histories and diagnosis of these children and what Wakefield had reported in the Lancet."
Legacy of a Health Scare
The damage done to childhood vaccination rates is still being felt in the U.S. and U.K. MMR vaccination rates in the U.S. are still below the 95% level recommended by the World Health Organization.
In 2008, for the first time in 14 years, measles was declared endemic in England and Wales. The BMJ says hundreds of thousands of children in the U.K. are unprotected as a result of the scare.
Despite being stripped of his medical and academic credentials, Wakefield continues to defend his reputation. Last week, in response to the first part of the BMJ investigation, he said his work had been "grossly distorted". He told CNN that he had been the target of "a ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any attempt to investigate valid vaccine safety concerns."
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