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Fact checking the Age of Autism’s defense of Andrew Wakefield

Posted Jan 11 2011 2:37pm

The BMJ article, How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed, has had a lot of media coverage in the United States. With that coverage has come the defense of Andrew Wakefield, by himself and a few others. As a part of the defense (arguably the bulk of the defense) has been an attack on Brian Deer, the investigative reporter who wrote the article. I say attack because the main accusation, as you will read below, is false. Easily verified as false.

Consider this, on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, Mr. Wakefield made the accusation:

WAKEFIELD: Well, that’s interesting you should say that, because he was supported in his investigation by the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries, which is funded directly and exclusively by the pharmaceutical industry. So…

On CNN with Ali Valshi, Generation Rescue founder J.B. Handley made the following statement:

“The British Medical Journal is only publishing allegations from a single investigative journalist named Brian Deer, who was funded by a pharma front group for four years to investigate Andy Wakefield.”

He later states that Brian Deer was “...funded by pharmaceutical groups from the getgo”.

Where did this accusation come from?

In a blog post, Mr. Handley let’s us know how he came to this conclusion:

In fact, Deer was originally funded to investigate Andy by a front group for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industries, just as Andy Wakefield said. From a confidential source:

“Deer was provided with free assistance by Medico-Legal Investigations a company owned and controlled by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry – I have documentation on this. MLI specialise in getting medical doctors prosecuted by the General Medical Council. And that was done before he published in The Sunday Times in Feb 2004.”

We also see the story shifting we also see the story shifting. Instead of “funded from the getgo” or “funded by a pharma front group for four years” we find that he was given “free assistance” We don’t even know how much free assistance.

An unsupported assertion is made that the company is “owned and controlled by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry”.

At least we have something we can verify. A claim like this should be verified, one way or the other. So I did. I contacted Medico-Legal Investigations. I posed a simple question:

You may be aware that Brian Deer has recently published the findings of his investigations showing that Andrew Wakefield committed research fraud in his investigations into MMR and autism. In retaliation, Mr. Wakefield and his supporters are claiming that Mr. Deer is conflicted himself. As part of this, they claim:

“When Brian Deer began his investigation of Andy Wakefield, he was supported by a pharmaceutical front group”

To support this, they claim:

“Deer was provided with free assistance by Medico-Legal Investigations a company owned and controlled by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry – I have documentation on this. MLI specialise in getting medical doctors prosecuted by the General Medical Council. And that was done before he published in The Sunday Times in Feb 2004.”

Can you confirm whether this statement is, in fact, true?

The response?

The statement in bold lettering is totally false. We had no idea he was undertaking this investigation until he was about halfway through. At that point, and knowing that we were the only people in Europe experienced in the investigation of research fraud and misconduct, he contacted us to seek advice on a general issue related to Ethics Committees. We had a one off meeting with him and were able to offer guidance without knowing the details of the confidential investigation. I would like to know how anyone can say we are a pharmaceutical front group – we have always retained our independence.

We have never been owned or controlled by the ABPI - that is complete and utter nonsense. We have been supported by the ABPI and, indeed, the medical Royal Colleges. In order to ease our cashflow crises (there is never enough work to cover the costs of running a business) a few pharma companies paid an annual subscription to us in return for reduced rates for training and investigations. That does not mean that we were controlled by them. I pay annual subscriptions to magazines and get cheaper copies but I do not have editorial control!

Finally we specialise in the investigation of possible fraud/misconduct in research. When we are 70% certain that we have enough evidence to prove serious professional misconduct we report the facts to the GMC who conduct an Inquiry into the allegations. We also investigate other health sector matters and if a criminal offence is disclosed we report to the police or embark upon a private prosecution through the lawyers of our clients (other statutory bodies). The protection of patients is primarily our concern.

I hope this helps

Shall we count the errors in Mr. Handley’s attack?

1) Medico-Legal Investigations had no part in the investigation. They only offered a one-off meeting on medical ethics. Medico-Legal Investigations was unaware of the specifics of Mr. Deer’s investigations.

2) Medico-Legal Investigations is not “owned and controlled by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry”. Thus it is not a “front group”.

3) On top of all that, Mr. Deer was not even funded by Medico-Legal Investigations.

4) The association with Medico-Legal Investigations was a simple meeting, as Mr. Deer was over half way through his investigation. The association was not “from the get go” and was not “four years” (funded or not).

In essence, we see what Mr. Wakefield and his supporters are reduced to: a publicity campaign. Get their message out, accurate or not. Attack the source rather than address the allegations.

  1. Andrew Wakefield is a fraud! « Skepacabra:
    [...] [UPDATE 1/11/11: Seth Mnookin talks on American Morning here and Sullivan fact-checks Age of Autism's defense of Wakefield here] [...]
  2. Tweets that mention Autism Blog - Fact checking the Age of Autism’s defense of Andrew Wakefield « Left Brain/Right Brain -- Topsy.com:
    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kev, Bastard Sheep and scothoser. scothoser said: Wow. A critical article to read. Fact checking blatant lies about autism investigations is always important: http://bit.ly/g4nn6i [...]
  3. cia parker:
    Do you dispute that Brian Deer said that the Sunday Times of London and Channel 4 paid him to attend the GNC hearing 160 days between 2006 and 2010, but that they both deny having paid him? None of the parents of the Lancet 12 wanted to bring action against Wakefield, so Deer did it on his own. The parents did not give consent for Deer to have access to their children's medical records, but Deer got access illegally and posted much of the information on the Internet. Is there a reason that you did not mention these facts?
  4. Sullivan:
    My understanding is that Brian Deer is a freelance journalist at present and that, yes, he has been employed by the Sunday Times for his reporting on the GMC hearing. Brian Deer reported on the GMC hearing here: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article5683671.ece I suspect that the Times paid him. When I enquired to the GMC about whether Brian Deer was the claimant in the hearing, I found he was not. I forgot to add: Brian Deer sat through the GMC hearings where details of these childrens medical histories were discussed. The details I have read from him so far are in the transcripts. Was it illegal for Andrew Wakefield's supporters to be there listening too? Lastly, this is a red herring. Take the assumption that Brian Deer is evil. Does that make Andrew Wakefield good?
  5. Kev:
    Do you dispute that Brian Deer said that the Sunday Times of London and Channel 4 paid him to attend the GNC hearing 160 days between 2006 and 2010, but that they both deny having paid him?
    Can you show where they deny paying him for the articles he wrote? Can you show where Brian Deer claimed to be in the employ (as opposed to retained by on a freelance basis)Channel 4 and/or the Times?
    None of the parents of the Lancet 12 wanted to bring action against Wakefield, so Deer did it on his own.
    So?
    The parents did not give consent for Deer to have access to their children’s medical records, but Deer got access illegally
    Brian Deer attended the GMC hearings where the Lancet 12's medical records were discussed. How is that illegal?
    and posted much of the information on the Internet.
    Where does he name the lancet kids who weren't already in the media?

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