By Adam Smith
Science & Communication Officer, ANH-Intl

Keen Wakefield-watchers have been waiting with interest for his response to the recent accusations of “scientific fraud” made by the British Medical Journal (BMJ). Now, a statement released by Andrew Wakefield on the Vaccine Safety First website provides clear evidence that brings into question the motives and integrity of the BMJ.

Reheated accusations

Earlier this month, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an editorial in which it accused Dr Andrew Wakefield of “scientific fraud” over the controversial 1998 Lancet case series, which described a new syndrome of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) in association with inflammatory bowel disease. The accusations were accompanied by a three-part series of articles by Brian Deer, the journalist who first issued the same allegations in the Sunday Times back in 2004. To us, the BMJ articles seemed like a panicked response by the medical establishment to Wakefield’s book, Callous Disregard – which was not mentioned by the BMJ nor Deer! Had they even read the book before printing their accusations?

New Wakefield statement

Yesterday, Wakefield struck back, and he is asking similar questions. During an interview with the USA’s Fox News on Monday 24th January, he announced the imminent release via the website Vaccine Safety First of documents “proving” that no fraud had been committed. A statement has now been released that points out some interesting and pertinent facts, facts that should raise questions in an impartial observer’s mind as to the BMJ’s conduct and motivations in this matter.

Ignoring relevant evidence

Callous Disregard was published in May 2010, and went into considerable detail over the specific parts of Deer’s allegations of “fraud”. Even before then, Wakefield had lodged a complaint with the UK’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC) over Deer’s Sunday Times article making the same accusations, in which Wakefield also directly addressed the fraud allegations. Wakefield’s new statement asks Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, whether she had properly examined these documents prior to publishing the editorial and new articles, questioning whether “they acted with due diligence and caution in coming to their damning determinations”.

In an accompanying email exchange with Dr Godlee, she is repeatedly evasive as to whether she read the PCC complaint prior to going to press, while admitting that she had not read Callous Disregard because “my understanding is that in your book you make the same points concerning Mr Deer’s allegations as you made in your suspended complaint to the PCC”. Her claim that the PCC complaint is “suspended” is easily disproven by checking the PCC website: “No substantive ruling in relation to the complaint has been reached by the PCC at this stage…the PCC complaint is outstanding”. This is despite footnote 119 of Deer’s first BMJ article stating clearly that the PCC complaint had been suspended “on 10 February 2010 on grounds of non-pursuit by the complainant”. 

What was the evidence?

In 1996, co-author of the 1998 Lancet paper Professor John Walker-Smith, who was struck off the UK medical register with Wakefield in 2010, prepared a report for a scientific meeting held at the Wellcome Trust, London. The meeting involved physicians and scientists collaborating with The Inflammatory Bowel Disease Study Group, based at the Royal Free Hospital Medical School, where Wakefield and Walker-Smith were employed at the time.

Walker-Smith’s report, written in collaboration with senior pathologist Dr Amar Dhillon and not involving Wakefield in any way, described seven of the 12 children described in the Lancet paper, fully 18 months before that infamous paper was published. In Wakefield’s statement, Professor Walker-Smith’s opening remarks are reproduced: “I wish today, to present some preliminary details concerning seven children, all boys, who appear to have entero-colitis and disintegrative disorder, probably autism, following MMR. I shall now briefly present their case history [sic].” The statement continues with clinical descriptions of each child, taken directly from the report.

A final word from Wakefield

So, in Wakefield’s own words, here is the point he is making: “So there it is. These are the considered findings of one of the world’s leading pediatric gastroenterologists with an unparalleled experience of intestinal pathology in children, and a blinded review by an expert in intestinal pathology. These details were based upon histories and investigation findings that were independent of my input. The findings were faithfully reproduced in The Lancet paper, which was written pursuant to February 1997, at least two months after the meeting at the Wellcome Trust. There was absolutely no fraud. The remainder of Brian Deer’s allegations should be reviewed in light of the above.”

Seems like a fair point to us.

The BMJ is not impartial

Despite being seen as a bastion of medical research and academic independence, the BMJ is actually a wholly owned subsidiary of the British Medical Association, a trade union for UK doctors. As such, it is about as establishment as they come and could be expected to endorse the General Medical Council in striking off Wakefield. What is unexpected is the near-tabloid level they seem prepared to sink in the process: not only by asking a journalist lacking in any kind of scientific or medical background to write an unprecedented three articles in consecutive issues; but also by apparently failing to due any kind of due diligence, either by reading up on Wakefield’s side of the story or thoroughly checking Deer’s references. As we predicted in our previous article, and as Wakefield himself says, the BMJ now finds itself “in some difficulty”. It will be interesting to see what happens next.


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