Wakefield’s Inquisition: Abuse of the legal system and media by anti-vaccine “doctor”
By David N. Brown
As the GMC approaches a verdict on the misconduct of Andrew Wakefield, anti-vaccine sources are engaged in a concerted effort to make the “doctor” into a martyr rather than a sociopath. It is vital to ensure that the general public is not in any way lulled into sympathy for the “doctor”. In my judgment, the most important point to drive home is that, while Wakefield and associates play up the image of the “doctor” being persecuted for his ideas, he is the one who has persistently acted to suppress any discussion not entirely in his favor. To that end, I have compiled the following list, complete to the best of my ability, of recorded frivolous lawsuits, libels, complaints and harassment by Wakefield and his immediate associates against his numerous critics.
3 October 1996: Wakefield files a complaint with the Broadcasting Standards Commission over a broadcast critical of his claims that MMR was associated with Crohn's disease.
1998-2003: Nick Chadwick withholds negative results suppressed by Wakefield from the public, apparently as required while litigation was ongoing.
February 2002: Wakefield files or threatens to file complaints to the GMC against critical colleagues. One formal complaint involved a statement made in 1997. He reportedly told government chief medical health officer Sir Liam Donaldson: “It has come to my attention that you have sought details of our studies from the ethical practices committee of the Royal Free NHS trust. I infer from this that faced with an increasingly compelling scientific case against the MMR vaccine you are seeking to discredit the scientists involved. Your attempts to interfere in the scientific process are unacceptable. Not only do you have no right whatsoever to this information without permission, but also your action has had an indirect but nonetheless profound effect upon our ability to help these desperately ill children. I am seeking advice prior to taking this issue up with the General Medical Council.”
27 February 2004: The Sunday Times and the Lancet a letter from Wakefield's attorneys denying Feb. 20 reports that Wakefield failed to disclose conflicts of interest related to the 1998 paper, with the stated purpose "to invite you to agree promptly to publish a full apology to our client".
November 2004: Wakefield files a lawsuit against Brian Deer and Channel 4 for libel. At around the same time, his attorneys send a letter falsely alleging that Deer “has made a formal statutory complaint to the General Medical Council against Mr Wakefield and others concerning these matters.” The letter also refers prominently to “a current Press Complaints Commission” of Brian Deer, though no such complaint is on record. The claim of a complaint by Deer is taken up by Carol Stott, and continues to circulate to the present despite repeated denials by Deer and the GMC. Curiously, a February 27, 2004 BBC article stated, “The General Medical Council is now carrying out an investigation into Dr Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who led the 1998 study.” This statement, coming only five days after Deer’s first report was published, not only weakens any suggestion that Deer directly initiated the investigation, but raises the possibility that some form of GMC inquiry on Wakefield (conceivably rising from his own past complaints against others) was under way even before Deer’s allegations were made public.
March-October 2005: Wakefield’s attorneys seek to freeze further action in the libel suit against Deer. Justice Eady “The claim form was issued on 31st March but only served on 22nd June 2005. Thereafter, it seems, the particulars of claim were served with some reluctance following prompting by the Defendants and an order of Master Rose on 27th July of this year. They eventually appeared on 10th August. There has thus apparently been a rather relaxed and dilatory approach towards litigation of a kind which is supposed to achieve vindication of reputation.” He further questions Wakefield's motives in the lawsuit as a whole: "Claimant wished to extract whatever advantage he could from the existence of the proceedings while not wishing to progress them or to give the Defendants an opportunity of meeting the claims."
31 January 2005: Wakefield files a second lawsuit against Deer, over content of briandeer.com, and a third against the Sunday Times and Channel 4.
29 June 2005: Cambridge Evening News receives a letter from Wakefield's attorneys over a citation of a Brian Deer report (worded as "the article alleged..."), calling on the paper to "publish an apology".
July 2007: Martin J. Walker initiates smears against Brian Deer. Claims include allegation that Deer initiated GMC hearings against Wakefield. Though Wakefield condemns Walker on 3 November 2008, Deer reports a December 2009 newsletter for Wakefield's "network" requesting donations to pay an additional 5,500 pounds to Walker.
6 February 2009: A letter sent to Brian Deer requests that an article (published 2 days later) presenting evidence that Wakefield case histories in 1998 paper not be published: “(Y)ou appear to be considering publishing an account which covers much of the same material as is being considered by the Panel. Publication of your allegations and account at this time will give rise to serious risk that the GMC process will be prejudiced and the faimess of the hearing compromised. You also know that, at this juncture in the GMC process it would be inappropriate for Dr Wakefield to give a detailed response to you. He has denied t he allegations and gave a detailed response over many days to the GMC Panel.”
13 March 2009: Andrew Wakefield files complaint with Press Complaint Commission, over Feb. 8 story. The key allegations are that Deer “knew that these allegations were either false or misleading, based on incomplete records – or, at the very least, open to question” and that “it was he who brought the original complaint. He therefore has an undeclared interest in its conclusions.”
20 March 2009: Andrew Wakefield files addendum to complaint over Brian Deer’s statement, “I did not lay the initial complaint against Wakefield. This allegation is a fabrication, albeit rather a small one in the MMR issue.” Bizarrely, Wakefield presents truth of his own allegation as immaterial: “(W)hether or not Mr. Deer initiated the GMC investigation as ‘complainant’ in his letter dated Feb. 25, 2004, or acted as an ‘informant’ in an investigation already begun by the GMC, he did not disclose his own direct participation in the GMC investigation in his most recent accounts in the Sunday Times, intending to give the public the misimpression that he was acting as a neutral and disinterested reporter.“
3 July 2009: Thoughtful House release, “Press Complaints Commission Orders Sunday Times to Remove MMR journalist’s Stories on Dr. Wakefield from Paper’s Web Site”, alleges, “The PCC decision today appears to indicate there are questions about the accuracy of the Deer stories,” despite implicit admission in Feb. 6 that Deer reported only what had been alleged by others.
9 July 2009: Second press release, “Sunday Times Defies Press Complaints Commission”, alleges that “the Sunday Times has now defied the PCC by putting the stories back online after complaining Dr. Wakefield publicly announced the PCC’s directive.”
8 September 2009: NAA press release “Offit’s Failure to Disclose Jeopardizes Swine Flu Vaccine Program” is carried by Reuters. The stated location of “Austin, Texas”, in contrast to NAA headquarters location of Nixa, Missouri, strongly suggests that Wakefield and/or Thoughtful House are the creators of the release. The release defends Wakefield, attacks Paul Offit, and by extension attacks Dateline broadcast in which Wakefield was portrayed critically. It includes the claim, first made in a hoax published by Age of Autism, that “Offit’s share of a royalty sale for the Rotateq vaccine to Merck is a minimum of $29 million and may approach $50 million.” Wakefield’s use of a third party to promote the hoax in September raises the possibility that he significantly contributed to the hoax itself, in which figures were inflated through an inapplicable 2007 CHOP policy and documents from a patent which preceded the one which was sold.
27 January 2009: On the day before the GMC released its first findings against Wakefield, a 104-page complaint is filed with the GMC by multiple or. The most straightforward and prominently publicized claim is that Drs. Horton, Salisbury, Zuckerman, Pegg, and Rutter “gave false statements”. Obviously prepared long in advance, this complaint can be presumed without merit, and could easily be used as a basis for countersuits. Its greatest significance will almost certainly be as yet another obstacle to timely disclosures of findings and to further legal actions, of which US disciplinary proceedings against Wakefield and litigation against him and Thoughtful House are the most threatening to the “doctor’s” interests.
In hindsight, there are many things that were “off” about Wakefield. He relied (perhaps not wholly by his own choice) on an image of a “young maverick”, though he was in fact a well-established but not distinguished researcher with dozens of previous publications (none of which is listed in a Thoughtful House bibliography!). He earned his doctorate in 1981, at the strikingly early age of 25, yet PubMed records only 3 papers of his published before 1991. He held several formal titles at Royal Free, yet his contract stipulated that he have “no involvement in the clinical management of patients.” His previous efforts to link MMR with Crohn’s disease came very close to drawing charges of fraud (see review ) His publications in the affair show a shifting roster of coauthors and repeated changes in publishing journals. I find the path of his career (particularly his early display of apparent talent followed by surprising early difficulties) strikingly like that of artists who go on to commit forgery. I also see disturbing parallels to "angels of death" such as Richard Angelo, who left a trail of bodies along with a string of failed jobs as a male nurse. A major complaint to rise from hospitals in this and other cases is that they had been limited in their ability to denounce ex-employees by the threat of being sued by same (though I suspect fear of being sued by the victims' survivors had far more to do with it!). Wakefield can be added as an even more egregious example of the abuse of the legal system (not to mention the press) to delay exposure of misconduct.
The bottom line is that the only thing necessary to stop Wakefield was for those who knew the most about his conduct to speak up before his spurious claims became cultural currency. The best way to ensure that similar (or even worse) offenders are exposed before they do harm is to reform the courts, so that litigation is NEVER allowed to trump timely criticism among scientific professionals