Danish investigator Poul Thorsen: Custom-made for the anti-vaccine movement to distract from inconvenient science

Here we go again.

If there’s one thing about the anti-vaccine movement, it’s all about the ad hominem. Failing to win on science, clinical trials, epidemiology, and other objective evidence, inevitably anti-vaccine propagandists fall back on attacking the person instead of the evidence. For example, Paul Offit has been the subject of unrelenting attacks from Generation Rescue and other anti-vaccine groups, having been dubbed “Dr. Proffit” and accused of being so in the pocket of big pharma that he’ll do and say anything for it. I personally have been accused by Jake Crosby of a conflict of interest that isn’t, based on conspiracy mongering and an utterly brain dead argument (which is much like every other argument Jake likes to make on this issue). Steve Novella, Paul Offit, Steve Novella, Amy Wallace, Trine Tsouderos, and others were portrayed as cannibals sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast of baby. Meanwhile, anti-vaccine luminaries invoke the pharma shill gambit with abandon and try their best to smear journalists who write about how anti-vaccine views are endangering herd immunity, journalists such as Trine Tsouderos, Amy Wallace, and Chris Mooney.

Sometimes, however, karma, fate, God, or whatever you want to call it throws the anti-vaccine movement a bone, and, like a starving dog, inevitably the anti-vaccine movement tears into it. So it was about a year ago when an financial fraud investigation was being undertaken in the case of Poul Thorsen, a Danish investigator who had contributed to two large Danish studies, one of which failed to find an association between the MMR and autism in the immediate wake of Andrew Wakefield’s falsified data suggesting such an assocation and one of which failed to find an association between mercury in the thimerosal preservative in vaccines and an increased incidence of autism. At the time longstanding anti-vaccine loon Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. tore into Thorsen with abandon before he was even indicted or charged (he was only under investigation at the time) as though, even if he actually did commit fraud, such fraud in any way invalidated the two large studies with which he had been involved. As I pointed out at the time, Thorsen was not a major player in these studies. He was not the first author (usually the one who did the most for the study and is the corresponding author). He was not the last author (usually the senior author in whose laboratory or under whose funding the study was carried out). He was in the middle of the pack of authors for both studies, which places him clearly as not being the primary author or investigator for either of these studies. For both articles the primary author was Kreesten M. Madsen, MD, who was both first and corresponding author for both studies. Of course, if studies this large really were Thorsen’s babies you can bet that his name would not have been relegated to fourth or sixth on the list of authors in either study. Basically, Thorsen’s position in the author lists of these two papers indicates that, whatever leadership position he may have held at Aarhus University and in its vaccine studies group, he clearly was not the primary contributor for these studies, and they were not his studies primarily.

In the wake of the commencement of an investigation of Poul Thorsen, not surprisingly the anti-vaccine movement struggled mightily to elevate him to being the prime mover and shaker of the Danish studies. The reason was obvious: They wanted to discredit “inconvenient” studies that did not support their belief that mercury in vaccines causes autism. I was an ad hominem attack, plain and simple, because the primary argument was not against the data or the studies, but against the man. It’s a form of poisoning the well or guilt by association. It’s the same thing as if I were to point to physicians who have defrauded Medicare or insurance companies and argue that all science-based medicine is thus somehow suspect. Unfortunately, this sort of tactic frequently works–which is why propagandists without moral qualms about smearing their opponents frequently use it.

It’s also why, when I saw this article last night, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before Age of Autism and other anti-vaccine minions would be swarming. And it wasn’t. The anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism was on it within a couple of hours after the stories started appearing. You’ll see why from this excerpt:

A Danish man was indicted Wednesday on charges of wire fraud and money laundering for allegedly concocting a scheme to steal more than $1 million in autism research money from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The indictment charges Poul Thorsen, 49, with 13 counts of wire fraud and nine counts of money laundering. The wire fraud counts each carry a maximum of 20 years in prison and the money laundering counts each carry a maximum of 10 years in prison, with a fine of up to $250,000 for each count.

The federal government also seeks forfeiture of all property derived from the alleged offenses, including an Atlanta residence, two cars and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

This is how Thorsen is accused of having done it:

Once in Denmark, THORSEN allegedly began stealing the grant money by submitting fraudulent documents to have expenses supposedly related to the Danish studies be paid with the grant money. He provided the documents to the Danish government, and to Aarhus University and Odense University Hospital, where scientists performed research under the grant. From February 2004 through June 2008, THORSEN allegedly submitted over a dozen fraudulent invoices, purportedly signed by a laboratory section chief at the CDC, for reimbursement of expenses that THORSEN claimed were incurred in connection with the CDC grant. The invoices falsely claimed that a CDC laboratory had performed work and was owed grant money. Based on these invoices, Aarhus University, where THORSEN also held a faculty position, transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars to bank accounts held at the CDC Federal Credit Union in Atlanta, accounts which Aarhus University believed belonged to the CDC. In truth, the CDC Federal Credit Union accounts were personal accounts held by THORSEN. After the money was transferred, THORSEN allegedly withdrew it for his own personal use, buying a home in Atlanta, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and Audi and Honda vehicles, and obtaining numerous cashier’s checks, from the fraud proceeds. THORSEN allegedly absconded with over $1 million from the scheme.

If Thorsen is convicted, I have no problem saying unequivocally that he should go to prison for a long time. As was pointed out in this Reuters story about the indictment, research dollars are a precious commodity. In fact, with the recent budget battles and cuts in Washington, government research grants haven’t been this hard to come by for 20 years, and there’s no sign of improvement in the situation in sight; it will likely be several years before things get better, if they ever get better at all. So, I’m as pissed off as anyone to see a researcher abuse research funds by, if the indictment is correct, buying a home and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Of course, having had to deal with the bureaucracy that oversees my grants, I really don’t understand how it is even possible to buy a house and a Harley using grant funds. Every major expenditure (for me, at least) is closely tracked and matched to the approved budget. I can’t even envision how, even if I wanted to try to misuse grant funds, I could even find a way to do it. I really can’t. To me, if Thorsen really did abuse his research funds this way, it points to a serious accounting and oversight problem in his university that allowed such chicanery to occur.

Be that as it may, reading between the lines I do find one bit of information that might explain some things about the Danish studies. Madsen was the first and corresponding author, but it’s pointed out that Thorsen became principal investigator of the CDC grant in 2002. That doesn’t help AoA at all, though. I went and looked up the two articles again:

The NEJM article lists its funding sources as:

Supported by grants from the Danish National Research Foundation; the National Vaccine Program Office and National Immunization Program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the National Alliance for Autism Research.

This article was, however, published in November 2002. Given that it takes months, sometimes even a year or more, for a manuscript to go from submission to publication, this work had almost certainly been completed and was in the publication pipeline before Thorsen took over as principal investigator of the CDC grant. The pediatrics paper, which was published after Thorsen went back to Denmark, lists its funding thusly:

The activities of the Danish Epidemiology Science Centre and the National Centre for Register-Based Research are funded by a grant from the Danish National Research Foundation. This study was supported by the Stanley Medical Research Institute. No funding sources were involved in the study design.

That’s right. The Pediatrics thimerosal study was not even funded by the CDC! Even if it were, given that large epidemiological studies take years to carry out, it probably was in the last leg of its analysis when Thorsen showed up anyway. Even worse for the “guilt by association” crowd, all of the fraudulent charges to the grant are alleged to have occurred between 2004 and 2008, as described above–well after the Danish studies were published.

Of course, none of this stops the merry band of anti-vaccine loons over at AoA from opining:

We have written several articles about Dr. Poul Thorsen (4th from the left in the back row with his CDC colleagues), whose research known as “The Danish Study” is quoted extensively to “debunk” the autism vaccine connection. The mainstream media was silent when he disappeared. Here are some of the posts we’ve run on the topic along with today’s article in the Atlanta Bizjournals below. Will they give Thorsen “the Wakefield treatment” now, or have they been given their marching orders to look the other way?

Talk about flaming, supernova-grade stupid! Thorsen has already been treated far more harshly than Wakefield ever was! He’s been indicted on criminal charges; all that happened to Wakefield is that he was struck off the register of licensed UK physicians, and then only after a ridiculously long (two and a half year) hearing by the British General Medical Council. He just had a couple of his papers retracted, the most prominent of which being the Lancet paper from 1998 for which strong evidence was found that he had falsified data. In the meantime, he had moved to Texas to make big bucks applying his woo to autistic children, at least until the scandal led even his friends kick him out of the practice. Thorsen faces decades in prison if convicted of these crimes.

My guess right now is that Thorsen is praying for “the Wakefield treatment.” It was so much less harsh than what he faces if he is convicted of defrauding the federal government. My other guess is that Thorsen would gladly take the “Wakefield treatment” over the possibility of 20+ years in a federal prison.

Finally, it can’t be reiterated enough that these fraud charges have nothing at all to do with the scientific validity of the Danish studies. Over the next week and during the trial, you can count on propagandists at AoA to try to use this case to try to convince people that the Danish studies are somehow hopelessly tainted, even though Thorsen actually didn’t contribute much to them, and that, by association, all the evidence that supports the safety of vaccines can also now be brought into question.