What would you do if you were a medical researcher whose work was exposed as fraudulent; you failed to disclose to your medical school that you were secretly using it to mount a potentially lucrative class action from which you would personally profit; failed to disclose that you were planning a private entity to exploit the research; and, were struck off the medical register?
If you are Andrew Wakefield you head off to the US, shack up with Elle McPherson, attend the Trump inaugural ball and become a hero to the country’s anti-vaxxers.
The story would be just another research scandal if it had not been deadly to the children of people who refused MMR vaccines on the basis of his claims about it causing autism and other brain problems; and, may now contribute to many people refusing COVID vaccinations thus damaging COVID-19 immunisation programs.
For instance, according to the Pew Research Centre the proportion of US adults willing to have a COVID vaccine fell from 72 % to 51% between May and September compared with recent Ipsos polls suggesting four in five Australians and Brits would take the vaccine.
Brian Deer, a veteran investigative journalist with The Sunday Times, was the first journalist to question what Wakefield was doing.
Ben Goldacre, now at Cambridge University, wrote a number of articles for The Guardian over the years as well as his book Bad Science, using Wakefield as a prime example of problems in the scientific community. Nick Davies, in Hacked Off, wrote about the media reception of Wakefield’s work and how hard it was to get the media to doubt or disown Wakefield.
But now Deer has written the definitive account, The Doctor Who Fooled the World, of the whole scandal – pursuing it through to Wakefield’s activities in the US and the pathology of the US anti-vaxx movement. The book brings together two decades of what is an exemplar of investigative journalism.
The book includes a very useful time line which meticulously lays out every step of the corrupt war on vaccines.
Andrew Wakefield made a number of claims and published a number of papers over a decade from 1988. He first linked measles with Crohn’s Disease in a paper which claimed to photograph measles virus in bowel tissues from Crohn’s patients.
In 1994 a British mother launched a campaign claiming that MMR damaged her infant son’s brain. The same year a small-town lawyer, Richard Barr, won a contract with the British Legal Aid Board to represent litigants in a potential MMR class action. In 1996 Wakefield struck a deal with Barr (at hourly rates) to construct a case against MMR.
In 1998 Wakefield had a Lancet paper published claiming discovery of a brain ‘syndrome’ caused by MMR. At the same time he set up a private company to develop products which could be used if confidence in MMR was damaged. Later in the year the first class action against MMR vaccine manufacturers, with Wakefield acting as an independent expert witness without disclosing his financial interest, was launched.
In 1999 the university and medical school asked Wakefield to replicate his research claims. After delaying for months he refused. He didn’t though refuse to court publicity and in 2000 appeared with one of his business partners, who posed as an independent expert, before a US congressional committee talking up the ‘dangers’ of MMR.
He also falsely claimed, in a 60 Minutes appearance, that autism “took off dramatically” in the US and the UK following MMR introduction.
By 2001 British tabloids were championing Wakefield in the sort of campaigns which have made them notorious. He also published more dodgy claims supporting his planned single vaccine.
In 2005 the Barr class action collapsed and early the next year Deer’s page one Sunday Times story disclosed Wakefield’s contract with Barr and the litigants from The Lancet study prompting Wakefield to sue for libel only to drop it and pay costs after the judge said the action was just for ‘public relations purposes.’
In the US in 2012 Wakefield tried suing Deer and the British Medical Journal but the case was thrown out.
But despite this Wakefield rapidly became a celebrity in the US making a video, Vaxxed, endorsed by Robert De Niro; starting a relationship with Elle McPherson; going on the conference circuit; setting up dodgy research centres; and, mingling with billionaires and Donald Trump.
The penultimate word on the fraud nevertheless went to the British Medical Journal in 2011 which published a long article by Deer and an editorial. The editorial said: “Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross.”
Eviscerated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper in an interview after the BMJ editorial Wakefield tried to pretend it was all a ‘hit job’ by Deer followed by the sort of incoherent stream of consciousness rhetoric made famous five years later by Trump. Incidentally, he and his supporters also attacked the US CDC accusing it of fraud.
The ultimate word though came in 2018 from WHO which warned of a global resurgence of measles due to ‘vaccine hesitancy” and named it one of the top ten threats to human health.
The next year there was a major outbreak in New York during which Wakefield dismissed risks from the disease and claimed: “I have never been involved in scientific fraud.”
By the end of the year there were measles outbreaks around the world with more than 80 deaths in the tiny island of Samoa and 5,000 in the Congo.
Meanwhile Wakefield is apparently still in a relationship with McPherson with the last reports from the various tabloids that hyped him back in 2001 speculating on whether she was actually engaged to ‘the disgraced doctor’ without quite disclosing their own role in his career.
And also meanwhile, governments around the world celebrating the arrival of a COVID vaccine now have to turn their attention to getting people vaccinated. In the US we can guarantee that someone among the anti-vaxxers will be claiming that the new President is trying to poison them and/or forcibly convert them to communism.