“CDC whistleblower” William Thompson appears to have turned antivaccine

Here we go yet again.

I’m half tempted to use a YouTube clip of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part 3, where he says, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.” I’ll restrain myself this time. Instead, I’ll just tell you what I’m talking about, which is the manufactured scandal known as the “CDC whistleblower.” It’s an antivaccine conspiracy theory that I’ve written about many times before, most recently less than a week ago. The long version of the explanation is in the links, but the short version is that a CDC psychologist named William Thompson, who was involved in some of the CDC’s studies looking at whether vaccines (in particular the MMR) or thimerosal-containing vaccines are correlated with an increased incidence of autism. Indeed, he was the first author of an important one that failed to find a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and neurodevelopmental disorders other than autism.

Then, a year ago, Thompson was featured in a video by the hero to the antivaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield, alleging that the CDC had omitted data that showed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism in African-American boys. The “meat” of this video consisted of cherry-picked and highly edited snippets from telephone conversations Thompson had had with Brian Hooker, a biochemical engineer turned incompetent epidemiologist wannabe and all purpose antivaccine crank, who had recorded the calls without his knowledge over several months. Hooker, earning the title I bestow upon him of “incompetent epidemiologist wannabe” published a paper “reanalyzing” the data from Destefano et al, the 2004 study that Thompson had coauthored with Frank DeStefano that Thompson was now claiming hid data. The result was a truly incompetently performed “reanalysis” of DeStefano et al purporting to show a 3.4-fold increased risk of autism attributable to MMR vaccination in African American boys. Of course, it showed nothing of the sort, and Hooker’s paper was later retracted. Because the whole story fed the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, namely that the CDC is covering up smoking gun evidence that vaccines cause autism, naturally the antivaccine movement went wild on social media, particularly under the Twitter hashtag #CDCwhistleblower. It’s a conspiracy theory that’s been percolating, with periodic bubbling-up for nearly a year. When last we looked at it last week, antivaccine Congressman Bill Posey (R-Florida) had read a statement allegedly from Thompson claiming that the investigators had destroyed evidence from the study, complete with an image of a large garbage can that’s featured in many antivaccine posts about Posey’s five minute speech.

Over the last several months, I tended to give Thompson the benefit of the doubt (somewhat), concluding that he’s just misguided and cracked under pressure—a portrait of him reinforced by Brian Hooker himself in his letter to the CDC in which Thompson is quoted as describing himself as having become “profoundly depressed” and “delusional” over the publication of DeStefano et al. Indeed, at one point he is described as having developed “acute psychological problems” and quoted as saying that the publication of DeStefano et al was “one of the reasons I became delusional because I was so paranoid about this being published.” As I pointed out at the time, if Thompson indeed underwent a psychological meltdown as described, it was an even greater betrayal of Hooker to have revealed it publicly. However, that portrait of Thompson is what led me to tend not to be too harsh on Thompson.

That’s changed.

The reason is that Thompson appears to have become fully antivaccine. Why do I say this? Because of a press release that showed up in my e-mail in box yesterday and is reproduced—where else?—at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism. It’s about a book about to be released by Skyhorse Publishing by Kevin Barry, Esq., with a forward by—who else?—Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and a preface by a blast from the antivaccine past, Boyd Haley. It’s entitled Vaccine Whistleblower: Exposing Autism Research Fraud at the CDC, and in it Barry purports to tell this story:

On July 29th, 2015, Rep. Bill Posey, R-Florida, addressed the U.S. House of Representatives, describing himself as, “absolutely, resolutely pro-vaccine.” However, Rep. Posey implored the House to launch a thorough investigation into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for fraud, misrepresentation, and manipulation of data linking vaccines to autism.

He then began to read from the transcripts of Dr. William Thompson.

These transcripts come from four legally recorded phone calls between Dr. Thompson, a senior scientist currently working in the CDC’s vaccine safety division with whistleblower immunity, and Dr. Brian Hooker, a scientist investigating autism and vaccine research.

In Vaccine Whistleblower, Author Kevin Barry dissects these explosive calls to expose a pattern of data manipulation, fraud, and corruption at the highest levels of the CDC. In Dr. Thompson’s own words, “Senior people just do completely unethical, vile things and no one holds them accountable.”

These transcripts are allegedly of conversations from May 8 to July 24, 2014, long after Thompson recovered from whatever acute psychological issues he had had back in 2003 or 2004.

As I’ve pointed out before, it’s not entirely clear that the phone calls between Hooker and Thompson were legally recorded, but let’s for the moment assume they are. It was still a truly despicable betrayal to record someone you pretended to friend, as Hooker appears to have befriended Thompson and then betrayed him. I note that Barry is the copresident of the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law & Advocacy (EBCALA), an organization we’ve encountered before on multiple occasions on this very blog. Let’s just say that it’s an organization that’s been associated with claims to have “blown the lid” off the CDC vaccine program without actually, you know, blowing the lid off the CDC vaccine program. In particular, I took EBCALA to task for having published what I considered to be a highly unethical study that, contrary to its author’s claims, didn’t actually show a connection between vaccines and autism. If Barry’s story is as credible as the whole “CDC whistleblower” story has been thus far (i.e., not very), I doubt that this book “nullifies the government’s claims that ‘vaccines are safe and effective,’ and reveals that the government rigged research to cover up the link between vaccines and autism,” as the publicity material for the book proclaims.

Normally, I’d have seen this press release and be left scratching my head, at least until the book comes out August 25. Fortunately for me, one of the not-so-Thinking Moms over at the “Thinking Moms'” Revolution, ShamROCK, whom we met here for the first time when she made one of the most boneheadedly nonsensical historical analogy about SB 277, a new California law that eliminates nonmedical exemptions, appears to have an advance copy (or at least an excerpt) and can’t wait to spill the beans in a post entitled The Thompson Transcripts: Shocking Revelations by the CDC Whistleblower.

It starts with this quote attributed to William Thompson:

“That’s the deal . . ., that’s what I keep seeing again and again and again . . . where these senior people [at CDC] just do completely unethical, vile things and no one holds them accountable.”

— Dr. William Thompson to Dr. Brian Hooker in a recorded phone call, June 12, 2014

As I said when Rep. Posey trotted out a quote from Thompson claiming that his co-investigators on DeStefano et al, if his colleagues at the CDC were pissed off at him before, what must his co-authors think of him now that he’s quoted as saying that they had met to find a way to “hide” the link between MMR and autism in African-American males, characterizing them as having “brought a big garbage can into the meeting room and reviewed and went through all the hard copy documents that we had thought we should discard and put them in a huge garbage can”? As I said at the time, I’m sure that saying such things will make Thompson even more popular at the CDC than he is now, which is almost certainly not very after what he did last year. Now he’s describing his former bosses in the CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases as doing unethical and vile things. (He’s now in the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.)

What else is he claiming now? Well, for one thing, he’s now trashing his own biggest study:

Dr. Thompson advises Dr. Hooker to focus on a mantra regarding tics because, as he states,“I can say that pretty confidently, vaccines cause tics. We replicated that.” The replication study was “Early Thimerosal Exposure and Neuropsychological Outcomes at 7 to 10 Years.” He then suggests the “mantra” should switch to “. . . (and) tics are four times as common among kids with autism,” and “There is biologic plausibility right now, I really do believe there is, to say that Thimerosal causes autism-like features.” (emphasis added). You might want to read that line again.

Amazingly, “tics” is not listed as a table injury with the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Thompson expresses his incredulity at that because, as he says, the science is clear; the CDC itself has replicated the finding with other studies.

I discussed this very study in great detail when it was published in 2007. Indeed, Thompson appears to be making the same mistake that Sallie Bernard and SafeMinds did when it came out in that he is cherry picking associations. As I pointed out at the time, it is true that the study found some negative correlations that achieved statistical significance, one of which was an increased incidence of tics. However, when running 42 tests, as Thompson did, it would be shocking if there were not a few anomalous findings. What gave me confidence that the adverse findings were almost certainly due to random chance alone is the observation that there were positive, beneficial correlations observed as well, and in roughly the same numbers. To paraphrase the way I put it at the time, if Thompson accepts that tics were associated with thimerosal, than there’s no reason for him not to accept the beneficial association between thimerosal and better scores on, for instance, the WJ-III test. If you accept one, there’s no reason to reject the other. Or, as Steve Novella responded to David Kirby’s cherry picking all the negative associations and ignoring the positive:

What Kirby does is not just really dumb, it’s despicable. He cherry picks all the negative (meaning bad) neurological outcomes and pretends that the study shows a correlation (it doesn’t, when you look at ALL the data). He then tries to dismiss the positive (good) outcomes as absurd. He mockingly writes:

If they (the CDC) really mean that thimerosal increases IQ levels in males, then sign me up for a double-dose flu shot this year.

No, David, they don’t mean that. Not by any stretch of the imagination. It takes incompetent statistical analysis or the blindness of ideology to write something so ridiculous. What the CDC means is that the study does NOT show that thimerosal increases IQ, nor that it causes motor tics, or improve motor skills, or decrease language skills, or anything else. The study showed no correlations because it all averaged out as noise.

This is, by the way, the same mistake that astrologers make (remember that crusty pseudoscience?). They look at many variables then cherry pick the outliers. At best what this study might show is a possible correlation, but any such possible correlation would have to be corroborated by a later study (with fresh data) that looked specifically at that one variable.

In other words, what Thompson’s study showed was statistical noise, with no association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and adverse neurological outcomes. Yet now he’s backtracking on his own study, even going so far as to misinterpret it! If you wonder why I now conclude that Thompson is antivaccine, look no further than this about face on his own study.

But there’s more. Sadly, there’s so much more. For instance:

Dr. Thompson also gives insight into media hype of outbreaks of measles in the U.S. and polio in third-world countries : “These drug companies and their promoters, they’re making such a big deal of these measles outbreaks. It’s like a never ending thing where the press loves to hype it and it scares people.”

Yes, that’s the pharma shill gambit Thompson is using. Is there a gambit more pathognomonic of the antivaccine movement, quacks, and cranks than the pharma shill gambit? No, I would argue, there is not. Still not convinced? Then look at this:

Dr. Thompson then brings Dr. Hooker’s attention to the SEED project, which he refers to as “Disneyland” (of data), and how this data set contains the health records of some 1200 children, 800 of which are confirmed autistic, with complete vaccination records, including prenatal vaccines and RhoGAM shots. This data has yet to be released to the public for study. In fact, according to Dr. Thompson, “it is under lock and key.” However, as Dr. Thompson says, “So far there is about sixty proposals in, um, for people ready to do studies. Not a single one of them looks at vaccines, not one!” He is clearly outraged by this when he recounts how he asked his colleagues “What are you going to say when you have twelve hundred autism cases and a bunch of controls and you never looked at vaccines and you have all their vaccine records?” Dr. Thompson describes the SEED data as a “. . . gold mine. That’s the mother-load of mother-loads (sic).

So, assuming this is true, Thompson is outraged that, of all the sixty proposals for studies using SEED project data thus far submitted, none of them looks at vaccines? If that’s not an indication that he’s become antivaccine, I don’t know what is! Let’s just put it this way. Did it ever occur to Thompson that the reason there are no proposals for studies using the SEED data that examine vaccines is because, from a strictly scientific standpoint, there is no interest in vaccines as a cause of autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders. The reason for that is simple. There is no credible evidence to support the hypothesis that vaccines (or just thimerosal-containing vaccines) cause autism. Apparently not. Like any good antivaccinationist, William Thompson cannot accept that.

Of course, one has to remember that these transcripts no doubt consist of excerpts of Thompson’s conversations with Hooker that are carefully—shall we say?—curated to give the worst possible impression of the CDC and to present Thompson as some sort of real whistleblower. It’s sad, really. There are so many holes in Thompson’s story, as I’ve documented over the last year, that it’s just not particularly credible without verification by another party. Worse, Thompson seemingly let whatever his beefs were with the CDC lead him to reject whatever understanding of epidemiology he had and start misrepresenting his own NEJM paper as supporting a causative role of thimerosal in vaccines for causing tics, even going so far as to imply that the reason thimerosol-containing flu vaccines are recommended for pregnant women is because “the drug companies think that if it is in at least that one vaccine then no one could argue that it should be out of the other vaccines outside of the US.”

It’s time to take the gloves off when discussing this “CDC whistleblower.” William Thompson has become antivaccine. As difficult as that is to accept, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion, given his behavior. As a result, I’m starting to drift closer to the position of antivaccinationists on this, but for a different reason. I now want an investigation, if only to get Thompson’s butt on the stand for some cross-examination. He’s been silent for nearly a year. I want him to be forced to explain himself and back up his charges. I bet he can’t.