Surprise, surprise! Andrew Wakefield was paid by lawyers to undermine the MMR vaccine

This should come as no surprise. Thanks to Brian Deer, the journalist who uncovered so much of Dr. Andew Wakefield’s shady research and dealings, we now know that Wakefield was paid by lawyers before his infamous MMR study and that he failed to disclose this clear conflict of interest:

ANDREW WAKEFIELD, the former surgeon whose campaign linking the MMR vaccine with autism caused a collapse in immunisation rates, was paid more than £400,000 by lawyers trying to prove that the vaccine was unsafe.

The payments, unearthed by The Sunday Times, were part of £3.4m distributed from the legal aid fund to doctors and scientists who had been recruited to support a now failed lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers.

Critics this weekend voiced amazement at the sums, which they said created a clear conflict of interest and were the “financial engine” behind a worldwide alarm over the triple measles, mumps and rubella shot.

“These figures are astonishing,” said Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.

“This lawsuit was an industry, and an industry peddling what turned out to be a myth.”

According to the figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, Wakefield was paid £435,643 in fees, plus £3,910 expenses.

Wakefield’s work for the lawyers began two years before he published his now notorious report in The Lancet medical journal in February 1998, proposing a link between the vaccine and autism.

This suggestion, followed by a campaign led by Wakefield, caused immunisation rates to slump from 92% to 78.9%, although they have since partly recovered. In March this year the first British child in 14 years died from measles.

Later The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s claim and apologised after a Sunday Times investigation showed that his research had been backed with £55,000 from lawyers, and that the children in the study used as evidence against the vaccine were also claimants in the lawsuit.

At the time Wakefield denied any conflict of interest and said that the money went to his hospital, not to him personally. No disclosure was made, however, of the vastly greater sums that he was receiving directly from the lawyers.

As a result of Wakefield’s bad science claiming that the MMR was associated with autism and his self-promotion in pushing that message, vaccination rates fell across the U.K. Let’s review the timeline again, shall we? Here it is:

* FEBRUARY 1998: Andrew Wakefield’s paper is published in The Lancet, linking the MMR triple vaccine with autism

* 2000: Demand for single vaccines rises

* JANUARY 2001: The Government rejects calls for a single measles vaccine on the NHS

* 2001: MMR vaccinations fall to 84.2 per cent of children, down from 92 per cent in 1996

* EARLY 2003: Immunisation rates reach low of 78.9 per cent

* NOVEMBER 2003: Dr Simon Murch says there is “unequivocal evidence that MMR is not a risk factor for autism”

* 2004: It emerges that while preparing his Lancet paper, Dr Wakefield was being paid by lawyers for parents of children allegedly damaged by MMR

* 2004: Immunisation rates rise to 81 per cent

* 2004: Number of cases of mumps: 16,436, up from 4,204 the previous year. In 2005 the number is up to 56,390

* MID-2005: Immunisation rates rise to 85 per cent

* OCTOBER 2005: Cochrane Library says there is no credible evidence that MMR harms

* APRIL 2006: A boy, 13, who had not received the MMR vaccine, becomes the first person to die of measles in 14 years

Almost single-handedly, Dr. Wakefield promoted a decrease in vaccination rates due to a false autism scare that resulted in the return of large numbers of measles and mumps cases in the U.K.

And what, specifically, did the lawyers pay Dr. Wakefield and his colleagues for? This:

Five of his former colleagues at the Royal Free hospital, north London, under whose aegis The Lancet paper was written, received a total of £183,000 in fees, according to the LSC.

Wakefield now runs a business in Austin, Texas, two of whose employees are listed as receiving a total of £112,000 in fees, while a Florida physician, who appointed the former surgeon as his “director of research”, was paid £21,600, the figures show.

All have appeared in media reports as apparently confirming Wakefield’s claims.

It is understood that the payments — for writing reports, attending meetings and in some cases carrying out research — were made at hourly rates varying between £120 and £200, or £1,000 a day.

“There was a huge conflict of interest,” said Dr John March, an animal vaccine specialist who was among those recruited. “It bothered me quite a lot because I thought, well, if I’m getting paid for doing this, then surely it’s in my interest to keep it going as long as possible.”

March, who the LSC allowed almost £90,000 to research an aspect of Wakefield’s theories, broke ranks this weekend to denounce both the science of the attack and the amount that the case had cost in lawyers’ and experts’ fees.

“The ironic thing is they were always going on about how, you know, how we’ve hardly got any money compared with the other side, who are funded by large pharmaceutical companies. And I’m thinking, judging by the amounts of money you’re paying out, the other side must be living like millionaires,” he said.

Big pharma, meet big legal. The article even reveals that one of the referees on one of Wakefield’s scientific papers was paid £40,000! (This is particularly galling, given Wakefield’s pious pontificating on conflicts of interest between agencies that promote vaccination and investigate vaccine safety.) If there was ever any doubt that the whole MMR scare was based on no science and was motivated by lawyers who wanted to sue for “vaccine injury” in the case of autistic children, this should put it to rest. Indeed, more people than just Wakefield were riding the gravy train, but rather quite a few “luminaries” of the “vaccines cause autism” movement, as Kevin Leitch points out:

But is good old Wakers alone? Oh no, this money making machine had a few members, some familiar names to this blog:

Dr Ken Aitken, Scottish DAN! Doctor: £232,022. After resigning under a cloud from his role at Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh, Aitken gladly signed up for this gravy train which seems to have netted him nearly a quarter of a million quid of tax payers money. In 2004, Aitken was severely reprimanded by the British Psychological Society concerning his handling of an autistic child’s case. The society’s conduct committee said that he “allowed his professional responsibilities or standards of practice to be diminished by considerations of extraneous factors”.

Peter Fletcher: £39,960. I wrote a blog entry about Peter Fletcher’s anti-MMR strawmen awhile ago.

[…]

Arthur Krigsman, Business partner of Andrew Wakefield: £16,986. His unpublished ‘papers’ have been cited numerous times by Wakefield and supporters as evidence Wakefield was right, conveniently forgetting they were a) unpublished and b) written for his boss. According to Brian (see link in Aitken paragraph), in December 2004, he left Lennox Hill hospital, New York,after a lawsuit, which was followed by an ethics inquiry. In August 2005, he was fined $5,000 by the Texas Medical Board for misconduct. Gotta try and recoup some of that money somewhere eh?

Jeff Bradstreet: £21,600. Bradstreet – who recommends exorcism for autism – snapped up Wakefield as Director of his business after Wakefield was booted out of the Royal Free.

Mark Geier: £7,052. We could write a whole book on the Geier’s and their dubious practices. Luckily, Kathleen has documented most of them already. Suffice it to say, Geier shouldn’t be offering legal expert advice to anyone.

On the one hand, my disgust at these people knows few bounds anymore. Clearly, they have little concern for ethics, as I have pointed out before. On the other hand, Brian Deer gets kudos from Orac for unearthing this disgusting underbelly of the antivaccination movement.

More on this issue:

Profiting from autism: Tempest in a teapot, or …?
Follow the money
Unethical is too mild a word