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The National Autism Association’s embarassing spitefullness

Posted Sep 13 2009 10:13pm

In a recent Dateline episode about Dr. Andrew Wakefield, Matt Lauer stated that to some groups Dr. Paul Offit is “public enemy number one”.

As if to prove Matt Lauer right, the National Autism Association launched an attack on Dr. Offit for his appearance on Dateline. They did this through a press release, Offit’s Failure to Disclose Jeopardizes Swine Flu Vaccine Program.

The press release has the header: “Doctor Who Made Millions Off MMR Manufacturer Does Not Tell Public of His Financial Relationship during NBC Dateline Broadcast”

The NAA state further,

Dr. Paul Offit of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), who was interviewed for a Dateline NBC television special, failed to tell millions of viewers that while he was promoting MMR as safe he had also made tens of millions of dollars from selling another vaccine patent to Merck, which is the manufacturer of MMR.

Let’s take a look at what was actually said, shall we?

Matt Lauer states (about 1:45 into the video clip), “Dr. Offit is a target. Not just for supporting vaccine safety, but because he himself made millions of dollars for inventing a vaccine.”

Quite frankly, the NAA is lying. Matt Lauer knew that Dr. Offit invented a vaccine and made money from his vaccine and Matt Lauer informed his audience of this. My guess if pressed the NAA will likely hide behind the Merck connection. Yeah. Like Matt Lauer and his producer didn’t know that RotaTeq is sold by Merck. (if so, that Merck logo on the RotaTeq box should have been a big clue, don’t you think?)

A minor point: Dr. Offit did not sell a vaccine patent to Merck. He assigned the rights to his invention the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), a standard arrangement for an academic or industry employee. CHOP then applied for and was granted patents. CHOP (not Dr. Offit) licensed the patent to Merck, and then sold the license rights to a third party for a lump sum. Out of that sum, CHOP payed Dr. Offit, Dr. Plotkin and Dr. Clark.

The NAA press release further states:

According to CHOP documents, Offit’s share of a royalty sale for the Rotateq vaccine to Merck is a minimum of $29 million and may approach $50 million.

This is wrong. This is wrong on two counts. First, there are no CHOP documents which state that Dr. Offit’s share of the sale of the patent rights for $29 to $50M. There can’t be documents that say this because Dr. Offit’s share was about 1/10 of this amount.

How did the NAA get such incorrect information? There is a blog post, written by Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill which estimates this based on information they gleaned from the CHOP website. Their misinformation has been spread far since that post.

The only problem is, Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill were wrong. They made some big (and easily avoided) mistakes.

First mistake is that they used the incorrect Patent and Intellectual Property Policy in their calculation. That agreement wasn’t in effect when Dr. Offit and his co-inventors invented what became RotaTeq. Even Misters Blaxill and Olmsted acknowledged this in their post.

The old inventor agreement (easily found on the CHOP website) states:

payment to inventors was based on gross income, with 50 percent distribution on the first $250,000, 30 percent on the next $250,000, 15 percent on the next $4.5 million and 10 percent on the remainder.

The bulk of the payout was 10% of net income. Not 30% as Misters Blaxill and Olmsted assumed.

The second mistake is that Misters Olmsted and Blaxill neglected the fact that Dr. Offit shared the CHOP payment with his co-inventors, Dr. Stanley Plotkin and Dr. Fred Clark.

Mister Blaxill has stated in the comments to his post that Clark and Plotkin were not faculty of CHOP, but, instead were at Wistar. Again, one can easily confirm that they were faculty at CHOP with a simple google search. The CHOP research timeline states,

Drs. H. Fred Clark, Stanley Plotkin and Paul Offit develop a rotavirus vaccine for infantile gastroenteritis.

CHOP ’s 2006 annual report (also easily found) states:

As part of its distinguished legacy of developing vaccines to improve the lives of children, Children’s Hospital investigators Paul Offit, M.D., chief, Division of Infectious Diseases; H Fred Clark, D.V.M., Ph.D.; Stanley Plotkin, M.D.; and The Wistar Institute developed RotaTeq®, the oral rotavirus vaccine that was licensed and further developed by Merck & Co. Inc.

Dr. Plotkin is the former chief of infectious diseases at CHOP, and Dr. Clark was a research professor of Pediatrics at CHOP. Both easily confirmed through the CHOP website.

It is unequivocal that CHOP considered Dr. Clark and Dr. Plotkin to be a part of the CHOP team. The Intellectual property policy (and all standard IP policies) divide the inventors’ share amongst all inventors.

Sorry to go into such detail, but I can not figure out why Misters Blaxill and Olmsted have not corrected their mistake. One commenter to their blog pointed out that Doctors Clark and Plotkin were CHOP faculty, only to have Mr. Blaxill respond that “...Offit would have received the entirety of the CHOP inventor’s share”. I’d be interested what Mr. Blaxill based that statement upon.

CHOP is reported to have sold their rights to RotaTeq for $182M. Using the correct information, this leads to an estimated payout of about $6M. (Note, Mr. Blaxill and Mr. Olmsted report that the net income to CHOP was $153M. This would lead to about $5M payment for each inventor).

Using the correct CHOP policy, one can calculate (based on $182M):

Inventor share
50% of first $250k is $125,000
30% of the next $250k is $75,000
15% of the next $4.5M is is $675,000
10% of the remainder ($176,750,000) is $17,675,000

Total inventor share $18,550,000
This is split amongst the three inventors, leading to:
each inventor getting $6,183,333

I have confirmed that this is is an accurate estimate with Dr. Offit.

I post this calculation not as an estimate, but as a demonstration that the accurate amount could have been calculated by Misters Olmsted and Blaxill with publicly available information at the time they did their blog post Misters Blaxill and Olmsted took great efforts to find information about the inventor policies at multiple other institutions—much more effort than was required to find the accurate information on CHOP ’s own website.

$6M is a lot of money, don’t get me wrong. Dr. Offit has acknowledged this in his statements. But, it is much lower than the estimate that Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted have publicized. The honorable thing for these two gentlemen to do now is to correct their mistake.

The real honorable thing to do is to not only correct their error, but to correct the error wherever it has propagated.

What is more important than the amount of the sale is the fact that CHOP sold its interest in the patent. Why is that important? Because that means that the amount of money CHOP can make from this patent will be unaffected by just about anything Dr. Offit does or say.

But, I’ve strayed a bit on this post, away from the NAA. The source of the misinformation is the Age of Autism blog and Misters Blaxill and Olmsted. Perhaps the NAA could use the argument that they didn’t create the misinformation, they were just passing it along? Except that the NAA sponsors the Age of Autism blog.

Back to the rest of the press release. It is an amazing piece of work. I found it especially odd when the NAA interview themselves and make it sound like news. They don’t try to hide it, they give quotes from Wendy Founier and Jim Moody…and then list themselves as the contact people for the press release.

They also interview Dr. Wakefield, who calls Dr. Offit “disingenuous” at the beginning of the paragraph, and finishes the paragraph showing concern for how people like Dr. Offit might impact the integrity of the swine flu vaccine.

Anyone detect the irony there? Dr. Wakefield (and the NAA ) are so concerned about the swine flu vaccine program that they worry about Dr. Offit impacting the integrity of the program?

Talk about disingenuous.

The press release repeats one of the stranger of the accusations against Dr. Offit—the claim that he does not treat patients with autism:

Beyond Offit’s financial conflicts, autism advocates are also dismayed about the physician’s credibility on speaking about autism in general, as he does not treat patients with autism.

Unless the NAA wants to state that autistics in Philadelphia do not get infectious diseases, it is pretty certain that Dr. Offit has treated a number of autistics in his long career.

To cap this all off, the Age of Autism blog, sponsored by the NAA, ran a post advertising the NAA press release. However, instead of calling it what it is, a press release, they framed it as being “reported by Reuters”.

Yeah. They tried to make it sound like news reporting by a major outlet rather than a press release.

Even their own readership balked at that and they had to change the title. No apology, though. Just an acknowledgment and a claim that it wasn’t “an intentional attempt to mislead “. If you go over to Age of Autism to check, you’ll have to do some searching as they didn’t correct the post but, rather, buried it in the comments.

The NAA press release was a cheap swipe at Dr. Offit and it is as transparent as it was childish. It is an embarrassment to the autism communities.

As an appendix, I add the following information:

The Countering Age of Autism blog posted a comment by Dr. Offit. Also on Countering, frequent commenter to this blog, David N. Brown, wrote an excellent deconstruction of the NAA press release.

David N. Brown also took on the task of informing Mr. Blaxill of his error in the comments to Mr. Blaxill’s Age of Autism blog post. Mr. Blaxill responded with:

David Brown, please read the article before making incorrect statements. The payment to CHOP was $182 million (Wistar received a separate and earlier $45 million dollar payment). From this, Offit would have received the entirety of the CHOP inventor’s share. Benchmarks show the inventor’s distribution can range from 15-35% of royalty income, with the current CHOP policy set at 30% (a share we didn’t feature in our calculations because it is a new standard and may not have been the relevant one for Offit’s distribution). In other words, our estimate is conservative and uses a percentage that is at the very low end of the relevant range.

I informed Mr. Blaxill and Mr. Olmsted ahead of publishing this post of this information, specifically that (a) Dr. Offit did not receive the entirety of the CHOP payout and that (b) their calculation of the CHOP inventors’ share was incorrect and not even a conservative estimate. I included links they could use to confirm the information. I encouraged them to make the correction. Mr. Blaxill and Mr. Olmsted have declined.

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