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Russ Roberts hosts: Deer on Autism, Vaccination, and Scientific Fraud

Posted Feb 01 2011 6:00pm

I keep thinking I’ve blogged the last on this. But, I do think there is some interesting information here for some. In Deer on Autism, Vaccination, and Scientific Fraud , Brian Deer goes through the history of his investigation—how/why he got started, what tipped him off that something was amiss with Mr. Wakefield’s research, the mistakes Mr. Wakefield made in trying to handle and quash the story.

This post is long, but it covers a lot of material not about the investigation. It answers many questions that have been posed (such as what sort of job does Brian Deer have, how did he get access to information about the Lancet 12 children).

Investigative journalist Brian Deer talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about Deer’s seven years of reporting and legal issues surrounding the 1998 article in The Lancet claiming that the MMR vaccine causes autism and bowel problems. Deer’s dogged pursuit of the truth led to the discovery that the 1998 article was fraudulent and that the lead author had hidden payments he received from lawyers to finance the original study. In this podcast, Deer describes how he uncovered the truth and the legal consequences that followed. The conversation closes with a discussion of the elusiveness of truth in science and medicine.

Russ Roberts’ bio:

Russell Roberts, Associate Editor. Russell Roberts is Professor of Economics and the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Distinguished Scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Before coming to George Mason University, Roberts was at Washington University in St. Louis where he was the founding director of the Center for Experiential Learning at the John M. Olin School of Business and a Senior Fellow at the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy. Roberts has also taught at the University of Rochester, Stanford University, and UCLA. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago.

Roberts is a regular commentator on business and economics for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. In addition to numerous academic publications, he has written for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Professor Roberts is especially interested in communicating economics to non-economists. His first novel, The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism, a jargon-free book on international trade written for the non-economist, was named one of the top ten books of 1994 by Business Week and one of the best books of 1994 by the Financial Times. An updated and revised edition was published in the spring of 2000. His new book is The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance (MIT Press, 2001).

Russ Roberts is the host of EconTalk, economics podcasts available here and through iTunes. He blogs at Cafe Hayek along with Don Boudreaux.

There is an audio podcast and a rough transcript on the site .

In 1998, when the Lancet paper came out with a big splash, Brian Deer was working on stories about the DPT vaccine. But he decided against working on the MMR story at that time. He knew that to do the story correctly meant a lot of work, not just publishing what Mr. Wakefield and the Royal Free put out in a news conference:

I happened to be looking at that purely by chance when Wakefield’s paper was published. I looked at his paper and thought there was something very odd about it, doesn’t sit right just reading it on the page. Said at the time I was absolutely not going to get involved in MMR. Journalistically at the time, allegations against vaccines, if you want to do them in a responsible way rather than simply go to government experts or parents or people with interests and write down what they say and present the clash of opinions—if you want to understand what the story is really about, they require an enormous amount of work.

Later, he got pulled into the story:

At the time people were already saying: MMR, Brian Deer, he’s our expert, based on what I’d done in DTP. But in 2003, one of the editors was changing jobs, taking over some feature pages; wanted some stories. Said to me: Can’t you do investigation? I said: Well, what? Three or four different ideas. One was MMR. Didn’t want to get involved because there was a lawsuit coming up. By serendipity the lawsuit was cancelled and we’ll just do a feature, spend 2-3 weeks on the outside on MMR. Three weeks turned into 7 years, though not the whole time. Did make a couple of TV shows about other things as well.

Brian Deer started on the story, and right away he got pushback from Andrew Wakefield:

When you started looking into that Wakefield study, how did you proceed and what did you discover? Did routine journalistic work. At the start, put a phone call in to Dr. Wakefield. He always works with professional publicists; this time his publicist, within about 3 hours of me calling, his publicist had made a complaint against me to the paper. A bit of a strategic mistake on their part. The essence of the mistake is I am self-employed. But I have worked for the Sunday Times since 1981—that is my home. I was a staff reporter, a specialist, they sent me to the United States, and so on. But they imagined that this meant I was some sort of outsider. When they got onto the paper and started making complaints, they were making complaints against somebody who actually sat at the next desk to the editor, who had worked with the head of the legal department since we were all young together. So, it didn’t work, the complaint. I was a known entity. Whilst I am regarded as being a difficult, mercurial person, I think it is true to say I am trusted. That was the first mistake they made.

Brian Deer made some phone calls. Talked to parents of the Lancet 12. He immediately found that there was a problem. The “case series” was heavily biased. The children were recruited. They were involved in litigation.

Right at the start I rung up some parents who had been in the original paper and interviewed them. Interviewed them in a way they had not been interviewed before. Produced important information within hours of beginning the story. Which was? I phoned a lady who had started a campaign group against the MMR back in the 1990s and she told me in the conversation that members of her group were in the Wakefield study; said: they are all members of our group and still in the group. So these parents who had turned up at the hospital, she told me they were all members of her campaign group. Immediately alarm bells started to ring, because nothing about that had been mentioned in the paper. They all just appeared to be routine patients of a big London hospital; but she was saying they were part of a group. A group that had been created before the study. It was the result of her campaigning. She put advertisements in newspapers and made approaches to a firm of lawyers.

He discusses the start of the interviews. How he interviewed one parent using “Brian Lawrence” and how the information he heard didn’t mesh with the Lancet paper:

How did you interview them and what did you discover? The key one in the series of 12 was family 2. The mother, it came out over a period of time, had been a long-time collaborator of Dr. Wakefield’s. I went to interview her; in fact, I used my middle name which had been editorially approved from my managers rather than my full name so they wouldn’t google me and see I was an investigative reporter. I said I was Brian Lawrence, my middle name. How were you representing yourself? My friends say I’m a journalist you wouldn’t want to write about you. You would google me. I asked her all the questions people ask, isn’t it awful; who do you blame? I then went into exceptional detail as to what actually happened when she said her child was vaccinated and developed these problems. Went over her story in great detail. She’d already recently been involved in litigation; so the matter was very clear in her mind. She told me a very detailed story. You could say: People forget, matter of time; but this was the moment when she was saying her child’s life had forever been destroyed. Have to expect she would have that in her mind. It was quite clear that the story she was telling me did not correspond with any case in Wakefield’s paper. What it boiled down to in her case was that she had changed her story, told one story when she’d gone to the hospital and now telling another story; and the two stories couldn’t be reconciled. The difference was when did the problems of autism first reveal themselves. In her story that she told the hospital, it was 14 days; but in her actual story, far from the case. In fact it was months. She’d given one story which suited the paper. She may have done so in complete good faith. Might have misremembered. But when she had the opportunity to study her child’s records, it was a different story.

He tells of the first stories coming out in the Sunday Times, revealing that Mr. Wakefield was working as a paid expert, his patent, and the fact that data from his own laboratory (from Nicolas Chadwick) showed that there was no evidence of measles virus in the gut tissues of the children.

As a result of that, Wakefield made his second big mistake. His first was to have complaints made against me to my employers. Second was to begin litigation. He sued for libel.

Because of the lawsuit, Brian Deer was able to obtain more information. He was pretty much forced to in order to defend himself in the legal action. He used the freedom of information act. This exposed the connection to the Legal Aid Fund and the documents from the ethics approvals for Mr. Wakefield’s research (which showed that Mr. Wakefield started before he had ethical approval).

He couldn’t have expected—maybe this was his second mistake and suing me was his third mistake—in late 1996, early 1997, going back to when Princess Diana was still alive, that the incoming Labour government, the Tony Blair government, with a commitment to produce a Freedom of Information Act. America’s had a freedom of information act for so long no one can remember when it began. We had one introduced by the incoming Blair government. Enacted in 2000, started to take effect in 2004. Because the government had told government bodies to act as if the Act was in force, I was able to get from public bodies the fact that Wakefield had been paid. Funding Authority, in Britain called the Legal Aid Fund. Kind of like public defender system except the government doesn’t provide the defenders—it provides the money. So, it was a government fund to allow access to poorer people to litigation which had funded Wakefield’s lawyer. He could never have expected when he was doing this research that all of a sudden his funding would be exposed to scrutiny, and also the Ethics Committee. In America called Institutional Review Boards. Bodies of doctors, scientists, others associated with medical centers which give permission for research to take place. The paperwork of that body of the Royal Free Hospital also moved into the public domain by the Freedom of Information Act. I think I was the first person ever to get hold of these kinds of papers.

Mr. Wakefield tried to get the lawsuit put on hold, but Mr. Deer was able to force the case to proceed. Mr. Wakefield kept the pressure up:

There were occasions. He also sued me for my website, for which I have unlimited liability, would have lost my home had it been true. I would be sitting at my computer doing some work and there would be a ring on the doorbell and there would be a man dressed in black leather with a motorcycle helmet on and he would present me with an envelope. This happened to me twice. I opened the envelope and there’s an [?] for Wakefield’s legal costs for the hearing that was going to take place the next day in court. The figures were about $30,000 U.S. dollars, that kind of money just for one hearing. That was the kind of pressure they were trying to put on me.

And this proved to be a tactical mistake for Mr. Wakefield. This gave Brian Deer access to the medical records:

The next stage which was very unfortunate for him was that we got a court order against him requiring him to hand over to our lawyers the hospital medical records of the children. I never took possession of them. The judge balanced the issues of the confidentiality of the children as opposed to the fairness of the litigation in front of the court. Ordered that I be allowed to read the unredacted—with their names and all their details—of the 12 children. There were just 11 at the time—the American wasn’t involved in this. So under strict supervision of my lawyers, with a lawyer sitting at the end of the table throughout, I sat and read the medical records of the children.

It appears that Mr. Wakefield knew that giving Brian Deer access to this information was a problem, as he chose this time to cancel his lawsuit. Brian Deer couldn’t use the information, but at this point he knew enough details to realize that there was an even bigger story here. So he attended the GMC hearings:

I have never said anything about what I read in those medical records. The position is that they were disclosed to me in the course of litigation and I may make no use of anything I saw in those records or disclose anything. As I was sitting there reading them, Dr. Wakefield’s lawyers were in a taxi travelling across London to the High Court to disband the lawsuit against me. When I got home that night—and I hadn’t taken any notes with me or documents—I went home, phone rang, and it was my lawyers saying: It’s over. They’ve thrown in the towel. So I’m in the position where I have read the medical records of these children but can make no use of the content of them. However, I have to say—I’ve talked to my lawyers about this—it is a fact that it’s impossible to un-know something. Once you know something, you can’t stop knowing it. Unrealistic. So, what I did was to ensure that I presented myself at the next opportunity where these medical records would go on display. And they would go on display at a Disciplinary Hearing which arose from my original stories.

Asked a “what next?” question, Mr. Deer responds that it is time to move on:

Not sure I want to spend a lot more time on long investigations. Saying of the Buddha: The things we dwell on become the shape of our minds. I’m kind of tired of the hunt aspect of it and the adversarial quality to investigative journalism, the extraordinary hours that have to be put in to it to get anywhere. The complex legal issues that are always coming up. In an ideal world I’d find something that didn’t require me to do more than write a couple of hundred words in a piece and be cheap and cheerful. But I have a feeling that is just how I am feeling at the moment and it won’t be long before something else comes along that I get interested in and get drawn off into. I think what I need now is a holiday! I for one now am grateful. Striking a blog against fraud doesn’t make up for all the pain and losses people suffered as a result of the fraud, but it will open people’s eyes down the road to other things.

Mr. Deer goes into the results of the investigation, both his and the GMC investigation. He discusses how Mr. Wakefield was found guilty of multiple ethical violations, including subjecting disabled children to procedures which were for research purposes and not in their clinical interest, dishonesty, financial issues, etc.. He discusses the costs, both in Mr. Wakefield’s expert fees (about $750,000) and the costs of the GMC investigation. The costs to public health as MMR uptake dropped in the UK and measles came back.

Most people in this subject have seen it in terms of vaccines, measles, infectious disease, autism, or things like that. From the start, I’ve always seen it as being as being an issue of the integrity of science. Whether this paper was true or not and how he could get away with how he got away with. I think it is a depressing picture. It’s been in the region of $10 million dollars to crack a case series of 12 patients. The money involved with the General Counsel hearing, the litigation involved, journalistic fees, and all the staff gone around this to get to the bottom of this little case series of 12 patients. The great bulk of science is not that interesting to the general public and therefore would not create the cause for a newspaper reported to be funded by a newspaper or television station to go after this for such a long period of time and get all this investigative work done with government regulators and what have you. So, you really would have to wonder what else is going on in laboratories and medical centers. The fact that Wakefield thought he was going to get away with it, and the casual way he went about it leads me to think he was working within a culture within which that wasn’t far from unusual, wasn’t far from extraordinary—the kind of misrepresentations he made were far from remarkable by common standards, I suspect. Part of it the nature of human beings; part of it the elusive nature of truth. Part of it is the nature of the publication process.

  1. tony bateson:
    If Deer is such a brilliant journalist it is odd that he seemingly only became aware of what Andrew Wakefield was doing when the Lancet report was published. Especially since the Mail on Sunday reported two years earlier what line of research was being followed by Wakefield. Then again Deer is quoted as a DTaP expert. Big deal that Deer found so little of interest in that field which is undeniably closer to the cause of autism than MMR. Now this man is setting himself up as an authority on autism. What's the difference then between interest in MMR and interest in DTaP? It's simple big bucks. Tony Bateson, Oxford, UK.
  2. Jen:
    Deer is being vindictive - he isnt acting for 'the good of the children' - he's acting in his OWN interests, to 'get back' at Wakefield. Read between the lines, people.
  3. esattezza:
    @ Jen, Being vindictive doesn't make him wrong and people can have multiple motives for their actions.
  4. Julie Weber:
    Below is confirmation of the Wakefield study. Scientists fear MMR link to autism By SALLY BECK, Mail on Sunday New American research shows that there could be a link between the controversial MMR triple vaccine and autism and bowel disease in children. The study appears to confirm the findings of British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who caused a storm in 1998 by suggesting a possible link. Now a team from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina are examining 275 children with regressive autism and bowel disease - and of the 82 tested so far, 70 prove positive for the measles virus. Last night the team's leader, Dr Stephen Walker, said: 'Of the handful of results we have in so far, all are vaccine strain and none are wild measles. 'This research proves that in the gastrointestinal tract of a number of children who have been diagnosed with regressive autism, there is evidence of measles virus. 'What it means is that the study done earlier by Dr Wakefield and published in 1998 is correct. That study didn’t draw any conclusions about specifically what it means to find measles virus in the gut, but the implication is it may be coming from the MMR vaccine. If that’s the case, and this live virus is residing in the gastrointestinal tract of some children, and then they have GI inflammation and other problems, it may be related to the MMR.' The 1998 study by Dr Wakefield, then a reader in gastroenterology at the Royal Free Hospital in North London, and 12 other doctors claimed to have found a new bowel disease, autism enterocolitis. At the time, Dr Wakefield said that although they had not proved a link between MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and autism, there was cause for concern and the Government should offer the option single vaccines - instead of only MMRs - until more research had been done. The paper - and the confused interpretation of its findings - caused uproar and led to many parents withdrawing their co-operation for the triple jab. Ten of the paper's authors also signed retractions on the interpretation but stood by the science. This is the second independent study to back up Dr Wakefield. In 2001 John O'Leary, Professor of Pathology at St James's Hospital and Trinity College, Dublin, replicated his findings. Last night Dr Wakefield said: 'This new study confirms what we found in British children and again with Professor O'Leary. The only exposure these children have had to measles is through the MMR vaccine. 'They were developing normally until they regressed. They now suffer autism and bowel disease. 'The Department of Health and some of the media wanted to dismiss our research as insignificant. The excuse was that no one else had the same findings as us. What they didn't say is that no one else had looked.' A spokesman for the Department of Health said they had not read the American report, but added: 'MMR remains the best form of protection against measles, mumps and rubella.'
  5. Chris:
    Ms. Weber, that article is over four years old! It is also just a poster presentation, not a published study: Try again, only with real evidence and not old news paper stories from the Daily Fail.

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