Andrew Wakefield: Destined for even more disrepute

I must admit that I never saw it coming. At least, I never saw it coming this fast and this dramatically. After all, this is a saga that has been going on for twelve solid years now, and it’s an investigation that has been going on at least since 2004. I’m referring, of course, to that (possibly former) hero of the anti-vaccine movement, the man who is arguably the most responsible for suffering and death due to the resurgence of measles in the U.K. because of his role in frightening parents about the MMR vaccine.

I’m referring to the fall of Andrew Wakefield

Wakefield has shown an incredible ability to avoid the consequences of his actions, so much so that, as recently as the end of 2009, what has happened to him over the last month or so would have been almost unthinkable to me. First, the British General Medical Council (GMC) found him guilty of several counts of egregious research misconduct, referring to him as “irresponsible and dishonest.” Then, a mere five days later, the editors of The Lancet decided to retract Wakefield’s infamous 1998 Lancet paper. True, it’s something that the Lancet editors should have done back in 2004 when Brian Deer first publicized the evidence of research misconduct that existed against Wakefield, but better late than never. Then, about a week later it was noticed that Wakefield’s sole remaining claim to the appearance of scientific legitimacy–just the appearance, mind you–had been withdrawn from the scientific literature, disappearing from the website of NeuroToxicology, whose hapless, clueless, and naive editors and peer reviewers had somehow let an execrably bad study see print, at least online. Instantly, the anti-vaccine movement erupted into a frenzy of conspiracy-mongering, the most hilarious of which was Ginger Taylor‘s mapping out of the various parts of the conspiracy to “suppress” Andrew Wakefield’s “brave maverick science.”

Wakefield’s fall was completed when last week the board of directors, led by Johnson & Johnson heiress Jane Johnson, having had enough of Wakefield, apparently unceremoniously booted him from the staff of Thoughtful House. (Of course, the irony that Thoughtful House has as one of its biggest supporters and a member of its board of directors the heiress of a pharmaceutical company family tickles me to no end. Clearly, Andrew Wakefield is a minion of big pharma in addition to his having been a minion of trial lawyers.) Last Wednesday night a cryptic message appeared on the Thoughtful House Yahoo! discussion group announcing his departure. That was followed by the disappearance of his name from the staff list at Thoughtful House. It wasn’t until Friday that the mainstream media was reporting that Wakefield had resigned from Thoughtful House.

Naturally, the ever-intrepid Brian Deer has more:

The following day [after The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s 1998 paper], Dr Joan Marie Cranmer, editor of the specialist journal Neurotoxicology, told her New York publisher that she would withdraw a new Wakefield paper, already released online, which also claimed to incriminate vaccines.

It’s understood that Cranmer “took another look at the paper” in the light of a GMC finding of research dishonesty, but a spokesman for the publisher, Elsevier, declined to comment. “It would be inappropriate to go into a lot of detail,” he said.

The Neurotoxicology decision is believed to have been the last straw at Thoughtful House, a centre founded in 2005 by the rich parents of developmentally-challenged children. The clinic was set up to enable Wakefield to continue activities which in October 2001 saw him fired from a London research position, and which eventually led to the GMC charges.

This is what I and others had suspected all along, mainly that the editor of NeuroToxicology, seeing the full depth and breadth of Wakefield’s scientific misconduct and unethical human subjects research, decided that she had better cut her losses and withdraw the paper, which had been accepted a few months ago and had been available online. This was the paper to which I had referred as “monkey business in autism research” and Prometheus had referred as a “made for court study.” It was a bad study in every way. Not only poorly designed, it was unethical as hell, too, making me wonder where the heck the University of Pittsburgh’s IACUC was when this study was approved. Soon after, it was announced that Wakefield’s partner in woo Dr. Arthur Krigsman was also leaving Thoughtful House. Three woo-meisters started Thoughtful House; only one woo-meister was left standing after the purge.

The more interesting revelation of Brian Deer’s work, however, is that there were a bunch of big money donors who had been backing Wakefield and plotting a comeback by helping to hire Max Clifford, a world-renowned publicist:

Wakefield has made similar unsubstantiated allegations, and it’s understood that Stott was intended to be a conduit through which American anti-vaccine campaigners would channel money to fund a public relations initiative for Wakefield, masterminded by Max Clifford Associates.

Two names were given to us, by a reliable contact, as likely sources of money. These were J B Handley of Generation Rescue, a group fronted by actress Jenny McCarthy, and Mark Blaxill, of the group Safeminds, which has claimed that autism is nothing but mercury poisoning.

These names were put to Ms Clifford [Max Clifford’s daughter], who said that she didn’t recognise Handley’s, but she appeared to take the bait over Blaxill. “Right, Mark. Okay. Mark is…” But then she paused to ask: “Brian, what’s your background?”

This information appears consistent with messages that have appeared on David Kirby’s EOH discussion list by Lenny Schafer, who stated that “various advocates are coming together around this and rest assured that Andy Wakefield will be adequately supported by our community.” The message in question was posted on Friday, less than two days after the original cryptic message on the Yahoo! Thoughtful House discussion group announced to the faithful that Wakefield was gone.

One thing that had puzzled me after Wakefield’s resignation cum sacking is this. The anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism had grown very, very silent about Wakefield. Nearly four whole days passed between Wakefield’s removal with nary a peep. Indeed, I had been seriously tempted to tweak J.B. Handley by e-mailing him a couple of my posts about Wakefield’s departure and ask him why AoA hadn’t said anything yet. In fact, come to think of it, after JB’s infamous “show me the monkeys” post, there had been nary a peep about the withdrawal of Wakefield’s NeuroToxicology paper, either, although Mark Blaxill did somehow manage to get his nonesense published in USA TODAY. Silence about Wakefield’s resignation reigned.

Until yesterday.

First, Martin Walker quoted Brian Deer commenting on my blog, without even the courtesy of a back link, after which he launched into yet another one of his beyond Orac-ian length rants against the GMC. Far more interestingly, there was this post, ostensibly an interview with Andrew Wakefield by Dan “find me them autistic Amish” Olmsted that was far more like a press release than an interview entitled Wakefield Moving into New Leadership Role in Autism Community, Leaving Thoughtful House. They must really be desperate for some sort of positive spin to try to put on this move, if this is the best they can come up with:

Dr. Andrew Wakefield announced today his intention to move on to a new phase of leadership in the autism community as he also prepares a more aggressive defense of his scientific accomplishments in the wake of a ruling from the U.K.’s General Medical Council (GMC).

“Announced today”? The resignation/firing took place nearly four days and mainstream news outlets started noticing two days before Wakefield’s “announcement.” The best word that comes to mind to describe such an announcement is “anticlimactic” at best and nakedly self-serving at worst. Of course “nakedly self-serving” is one of best descriptions of everything that Andrew Wakefield does, and this is no exception, in particular:

“The most exciting part of it has been the opening up of an entirely new sort of opportunity that will allow me to continue my work on behalf of autism families.” Wakefield said he would provide more specifics on the nature of that opportunity soon. “In addition, I will now speak publicly to refute the findings that have been made against me. I know my necessary silence on these issues has troubled many parents in both the U.K. and the U.S. But I’m ready now to get back on the front foot and publicly contest the false accusations that have been made against me, my colleagues, and indirectly The Lancet children. It’s been long overdue.”

Autism pseudoscientists and quacks are nothing if not, as James Randi would put it, unsinkable rubber ducks, and Wakefield is an autism woo-meister par excellance. Wakefield is down, but I wouldn’t count him out–unfortunately. It wouldn’t surprise me if he slithers back in another role. Nor do I feel sorry for him. After all, his trial-lawyer funded, incompetent, and quite likely scientifically fraudulent 1998 Lancet paper was the study that launched the most recent (an possibly most virulent) iteration of the anti-vaccine movement, led to dramatically decreased MMR vaccination rates in the U.K., and launched a thousand quacks in the form of the “autism biomed” movement, which has in essence made autistic children the victims of unregulated and sometimes dangerous experimentation all in the name of trying to “cure” them of their autism. The price autistic children have paid for Wakefield’s pseudoscience is horrific enough, but the potential price that thousands of children, both autistic and neurotypical, are paying and will likely continue to pay in terms of suffering from vaccine-preventable diseases, will probably be even worse.

As much as I detest Andrew Wakefield, I will admit, however, that I am quite curious about the form that this “new opportunity” to which he alluded will take. In fact, we can all make a game of it, “Guess where Andy will end up?” My top three guesses would be:

  1. Medical director or chief scientist of Generation Rescue
  2. Medical director or chief scientist at SafeMinds
  3. Medical director at a quack clinic in Ecuador, Costa Rica, or Tijuana

I lay odds on #1 or #2. #3 would clearly only be after Wakefield disgraces himself again, to the point that even Generation Rescue or SafeMinds can’t take it. True, that would be very, very hard, given J.B. Handley’s antics and the flaming stupid that Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Mark Blaxill regularly lay down, but I have faith in Andy, faith produced by his long history of incompetent, ideology-driven, and unethical science. I know he can do it again. In fact, I fear it, because, as amusing as it is to rip on Wakefield and the cluelessness of his remaining supporters, when Wakefield disgraces himself, it is children who suffer.