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Andrew Wakefield tries to make himself relevant again

Posted Oct 02 2012 5:21pm

Andrew Wakefield is the former research surgeon who championed the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Multiple researchers have told me that even at the time of Mr. Wakefield’s first research announcements, Mr. Wakefield’s idea was a stretch in terms of biological feasibility. For a few years at least, Andrew Wakefield was relevant in the autism research community. People worked to replicate his findings and otherwise answer the questions he posed. That was years ago. The result is we now know his ideas of persistent measles infection and a leaky gut causing autism were not valid and that, at best, Mr. Wakefield was a mediocre scientist who took this poorly conceived hypothesis and ran with it. Running as in a “running with scissors”, ignoring safety. As has been demonstrated since, he was also ignoring ethical concerns as well. But this is all old news.

In 2004 , yes 8 years ago, Brian Deer exposed many of the ethical lapses in Mr. Wakefield’s autism career. Since then we’ve heard a lot of words from Mr. Wakefield about how it is all about the children, but seen a lot of his actions more akin to it being all about himself. He sued Mr. Deer over those 2004 reports (how is that helping autistics?). Mr. Wakefield abandoned his suit (how is that helping autistics?). Mr. Wakefield asked that the GMC look into the possible charges stemming from the reported actions (OK, that helps autistics a little by exposing Mr. Wakefield’s ethical and scientific deficiencies better, but that wasn’t exactly his intention). Mr. Wakefield attended the GMC hearings even though he sayed he didn’t need his medical license (registration) any more. This provided a great deal of drama (again, how does this help anyone but Mr. Wakefield?) but not much advancement. Mr. Wakefield was struck off the register (which could be argued helps autistics in a small way). Mr. Wakefield appealed and then dropped his appeal of the GMC decision. When Mr. Deer wrote more articles, this time for the BMJ, Mr Wakefield filed a complaint with the PCC (press complaints commission) in the UK, but he appears to be not pursuing that. Just letting it exist as a complaint (again, benefit?). Then, this year, he chose to sue Brian Deer, the editor of the BMJ and the BMJ itself this year for defamation over another set of articles and public statements (again, to what benefit to autistics?).

Mr. Wakefield’s latest day in court was short, but likely expensive. A judge in Texas ruled that Mr. Wakefield doesn’t have the standing to bring that case to trial.

Recently Mr. Wakefield appealed. Which, frankly, was enough of a non event in my view that with Respectful Insolence covering the discussion I felt no need to.

In the past eight years we can point to no advances in autism research championed by Mr. Wakefield, but we can (and just have) point to numerous occasions of Mr. Wakefield use procedural methods to keep himself in the news.

Mr. Wakefield claims essentially that calling him a fraud is defamatory. Which brings up the part of recent events that I did find interesting. Again at Respectful Insolence, in Time to rally the troops against the antivaccine movement , Orac calls on people to, well, rally. I’ll stand apart from Orac on this one. Frankly, making this appear to be a controversy, adding drama, is not helping matters.

One might rightly ask, why write about this at all? Why spend time on a topic which has obviously become irrelevant? In setting up his press conference Mr. Wakefield (through his team) made a bit of a poor move.

Mr. Wakefield’s approach to the discovery of his ethical and scientific failings has been to deny even the most clear facts. For example, when presented with direct evidence that he had major financial interests in creating a viable court case out of the MMR/autism hypothesis (being a paid expert witness, creating test kits with the idea that litigation-driven profits will be millions per year, etc.), Mr. Wakefield tells us it is all about the children, and he made all his financial ties public in advance (which he didn’t). When it was discussed on TV that he had a patent application in place covering an alternative measles patent–one whose commercial viability hinged directly on the confidence level of the current vaccine–he told us that it was all misdirection on the part of Mr. Deer. Later it became public that Mr. Wakefield had business plans in place to develop the invention as a potential vaccine.

Essentially, after being caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Mr. Wakefield tells us he was never in the kitchen and, besides, he was only getting the cookie for the children.

From a public relations standpoint (and let’s not forget that Mr. Wakefield had a PR representative since before Brian Deer entered the scene) Mr. Wakefield has played his hand somewhat well. He plays the role of a man who remains polite even in the face of this alleged adversity we are to believe has been put upon him. Mr. Deer, on the other hand, is (I believe in his own words), mercurial and has made statements which are easy to use against him.

Mr. Wakefield is portrayed as the guy you’d love to sit down to a glass of beer (or more likely wine) with while Mr. Deer is someone you’d best not provoke (I believe the term “reptilian” has recently been used by his detractors). I’m not so motivated by the opportunity to sit down to a glass of wine with unethical people, but let’s move on.

In an article on the Age of Autism blog, Ed Arranga writes about Mr. Deer being brought out to the U.S. to give talks to some academics and how Mr. Wakefield will hold a press conference. As one would expect from the Age of Autism, the approach is strongly negative. Here’s how it starts out:

Brian Deer – a liar, fraud, and former reporter for The Sunday Times of London – is coming to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse October 4 and 5 to lecture you about Dr. Andrew…

Mr. Arranga is doing the attack here, allowing Mr. Wakefield to retain his polite persona. But with a multi-million dollar lawsuit ongoing, is this really enough distance for Mr. Wakefield? How will the above statements play out should Mr. Wakefield win the chance to sue?

Mr. Arranga runs AutismOne, whose convention presents Mr. Wakefield as a prime draw. In other words, Mr. Arranga has a financial interest in Mr. Wakefield’s reputation. A small conflict of interest which, while obvious to most of his readers, should have been made clear in Mr. Arranga’s article. Mr. Arranga also serves on the “Strategic Autism Initiative”, a charity formed after Mr. Wakefield’s ouster from Thoughtful House. [Correction: Mrs. Arranga serves on the SAI board, but Mr. Arranga is not listed in the available tax document]. Most importantly to this discussion, Mr. Arranga is also on the “executive staff” of the ““.

So someone intimately involved with Mr. Wakefield’s career and defense is calling Mr. Deer a “fraud” and a “liar” and, in general, attacking Mr. Deer. Consider that Mr. Wakefield’s case is based at least in part on the idea that using terms such as “fraud” is defamatory. Mr. Wakefield’s original court filing states that defamation occurred: “Based on Defendants’ purported “reanalysis,” Defendants made and continue to make assertions that Plaintiff Dr. Wakefield committed fraud and is “a fraudster.”” Again, one should ask, did Mr. Wakefield blunder in allowing this personal attack on Mr. Deer? How will a judge or jury view a man who sets his team to attack others while claiming that the very same terms are defamatory? It’s not enough to cost him the case, but it was not a wise move.

The sad thing is that this is as close to relevance and Mr. Wakefield can currently attain in the autism communities. Holding a press conference in response to lectures by Brian Deer, who is discussing events that happened 15 years ago. Attacking Mr. Deer through surrogates. Putting time, money and effort into the latest in a string of procedural maneuvers which, even if he were right, hold no benefit for the communities.

As far as cost/benefit calculations go, Mr. Wakefield is a simple case. Costs to the autism communities in time and resources wasted chasing the ideas he championed. Costs to the public at large in terms of health scares and increased infectious disease. All this weighed against a complete lack of benefit brought to the communities by Mr. Wakefield. I guess we should put this in terms of a benefit/cost ratio to avoid dividing by zero.

By Matt Carey

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