Dr. Andrew Zimmerman: A useful idiot for the antivaccine movement

About a week ago, I took note of a story that had been making the rounds in the antivaccine crankosphere. It was by an old “friend” of the blog, reporter Sharyl Attkisson, a reporter whose antivaccine proclivities I had first noted in 2007 and been commenting on every so often ever since. Given the intensity and idiocy of her antivaccine rhetoric in 2007, I concluded that by that time she had been antivaccine for quite a while at that point. In any event, last week she trotted out an affidavit by a pediatric neurologist specializing in autism named Dr. Andrew Zimmerman and used it to spin a conspiracy theory that the “fix” had been in for the Autism Omnibus. The Orac-length deconstruction and explanation are are in my previous post, and I’ll give you the short version in a moment.

First, however, here’s why I’m writing about this again. Yes, it’s a Tweet:

Yes, in response to Sharyl Attkisson’s report using his affidavit as a tool to spin an antivaccine conspiracy theory, Dr. Zimmerman issued a press release through the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he recently retired from clinical practice. (The PDF is here.) Let’s deconstruct it, and I’ll weave a recap of my previous discussion into the deconstruction. Basically, Dr. Zimmerman is trying to deny that he’s antivaccine by claiming to have been “misrepresented.” He wasn’t, as you will see. He just can’t believe that, when you flirt with antivaxers and keep claiming that vaccines can cause autism in a certain situation, antivaxers will think you’re down with them.

So let’s start at the beginning of the press release:

Some media reports have mischaracterized an affidavit I provided in September 2018 regarding my opinion about the complex interplay of inflammation, mitochondrial disorders and the risk of developmental regression in children with autism, expressed in the context of the US Department of Health and Human Services Omnibus Autism Proceedings in 2007.

Later in the press release:

In the years since 2007, I was asked to testify in federal vaccine or civil courts on behalf of several children who had similar histories of developmental regression and ASD following immunizations and were later found to have mitochondrial disorders. During one of these cases, I learned that my original affidavit, based on the 2004 IOM report, had been used in court without the modification I refer to above – that in my opinion, there may be a subset of children who are at risk for regression if they have underlying mitochondrial dysfunction and are simultaneously exposed to factors that stress their mitochondrial reserve (which is critical for the developing brain). Such factors might include infections, as well as metabolic and immune factors, and vaccines. I was asked by Mr. Rolf Hazlehurst and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to write a subsequent affidavit (9/7/18) regarding my recall of events in 2007

So basically, since 2007, Dr. Zimmerman has been palling around with the antivaccine movement, so to speak, to the point where he’s tight enough with antivaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. that RFK Jr. could ask him to give an affidavit and he would actually do it for him! He’s also been testifying on behalf of children with mitochondrial disorders whose parents are seeking compensation for vaccine-induced autism. The affidavit is here; so we can see just what Dr. Zimmerman said before seeing if his denial and claim of being “misrepresented” are plausible and convincing. Here’s the meat:

6. On Friday June 15th 2007, I was present during a portion of the O.A.P. to hear the testimony of the Petitioner’s expert in the field of pediatric neurology, Dr. Marcel Kinsbourne. During a break in the proceedings, I spoke with DOJ attorneys and specifically the lead DOJ attorney, Vincent Matanoski, in order to clarify my written expert opinion.

7. I clarified that my written expert opinion regarding Michelle Cedillo was a case-specific opinion as to Michelle Cedillo. My written expert opinion regarding Michelle Cedillo was not intended to be a blanket statement as to all children and all medical science.

8. I explained that I was of the opinion that there were exceptions in which vaccinations could cause autism.

9. More specifically, I explained that a subset of children with an underlying mitochondrial dysfunmction, vaccine-induced fever and immune stimulation that exceeded metabolic energy reserves could, and in at least one of my patients, did cause regressive encephalopathy with features of autism spectrum disorder.

10. I explained that my opinion regarding exceptions in which vaccines could cause autism was based upon advances in science, medicine, and clinical research of one of my patients in particular.

Now here’s what he says in his press release:

In 2007, I wrote an affidavit for the US Department of Justice, in which I stated my opinion at that time, based on the 2004 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, “Immunization Safety Review: Vaccines and Autism,” that there was no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. I was prepared to testify to that effect at the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (OAP). Three days before I was scheduled to testify, I spoke with DOJ attorneys about my revised opinion, that there may be a subset of children who are at risk for regression if they have underlying mitochondrial dysfunction and are simultaneously exposed to factors that stress their mitochondrial reserve (which is critical for the developing brain). Such factors might include infections, as well as metabolic and immune factors, and vaccines. I was subsequently asked by the DOJ not to testify.

So far, there’s no substantive disagreement between what Dr. Zimmerman said in his affidavit and in his press release. Now here’s what Sharyl Attkisson says in her sensationalistic story:

But now Dr. Zimmerman has provided remarkable new information. He claims that during the vaccine hearings all those years ago, he privately told government lawyers that vaccines can, and did cause autism in some children. That turnabout from the government’s own chief medical expert stood to change everything about the vaccine-autism debate. If the public were to find out. Hazlehurst: And he has come forward and explained how he told the United States government vaccines can cause autism in a certain subset of children and United States government, the Department of Justice suppressed his true opinions. Hazlehurst discovered that later when Dr. Zimmerman evaluated Yates as a teenager. That’s when he partnered with vaccine safety advocate Robert F. Kennedy, Junior—who has a voice condition.

So where’s the “misrepresentation”? If there’s misrepresentation, it’s not what Dr. Zimmerman claims. The content of his affidavit, it seems to me, was not what Sharyl Attkisson misrepresented, other than perhaps some exaggeration. Rather, it was the significance of his affidavit that she misrepresented. As I described in my previous post, Attkisson represented Zimmerman’s affidavit as slam dunk evidence that the Department of Justice had “suppressed” Dr. Zimmerman’s opinion. Remember, the Autism Omnibus Proceedings (OAP) were a big deal at the time. Based on the number of petitioners (5,400!) coming before the court claiming that their children’s autism had been caused by vaccines, based on suggestions by representatives of the petitioners, an agreement was struck to examine a few “test cases.” Basically, the petitioners would provide the very best cases they could representing specific hypotheses regarding how vaccines might cause autism, and the Vaccine Court would try them. If the petitioners could win with these cases and thereby convince the Court that their hypotheses were plausible, then the rest of the cases in the AOP could proceed. If the cases failed, then the hypotheses would be viewed as too implausible and not demonstrated, and the rest of the cases would not proceed. Basically, there were three hypotheses to be tested:

  1. Did the mercury in thimerosal used as a preservative in vaccines cause autism?
  2. Did the MMR vaccine cause autism?
  3. Did a combination of MMR and thimerosal cause autism?

How this played out was a little more complicated than that, but for the purposes of this post I don’t need to go into it again when I discussed it so recently. What is important is that Dr. Zimmerman did contribute expert opinions to the cases asserting that vaccines don’t cause autism but did not testify. What is important is that his opinion was a relatively minor component of the DOJ’s defense and likely unnecessary. What is important is that the petitioners in the AOP test cases would have lost anyway even if Dr. Zimmerman had never contributed expert opinions to the test cases. That’s where the misrepresentation by Sharyl Attkisson was, her inflating the importance of Dr. Zimmerman to the AOP outcome and of the DOJ not giving him a forum to air his then newly arrived at belief that vaccines could cause autism in children with mitochondrial disorders based on his experience evaluating Hannah Poling and, with her father, writing up a case report of her regression. I wrote about that case in detail ten years ago when it was new, in particular how the evidence does not support Zimmerman and Poling’s idea that vaccines can cause autism in children with mitochondrial disorders. So basically, the misrepresentation by Sharyl Attkisson in her story was not of Dr. Zimmerman’s claims in his affidavit, but by letting Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. portray the government’s changing its mind on having Dr. Zimmerman testify as “one of the most consequential frauds, arguably in human history.” Hyperbole, much? So where’s the “misrepresentation” of the affidavit? As I read Dr. Zimmerman’s press release, I got the impression that he was trying to portray his opinions (i.e., the content of the affidavit) as having been misrepresented when in fact it was not. Maybe he meant that its significance had been misrepresented, but I don’t think so. If he didn’t think it was important to tell the world that he had been pulled as a testifying expert witness after he told the DOJ lawyers for the defense in the AOP about how he thought vaccines could cause autism in children with mitochondrial disorders, why on earth did he give the affidavit? What on earth did he think that RFK Jr. was going to do with it, if not publicize it and try to weave a conspiracy theory out of it of government “suppression” of Dr. Zimmerman’s ideas. And if he couldn’t publicize it enough himself, he did what RFK Jr. always does: He enlisted the aid of another antivaxer, in this case Sharyl Attkisson, to trumpet the conspiracy theory with her talent for disguising propaganda as a news report. So what’s Dr. Zimmerman’s role in all this? I don’t think he’s actually antivaccine (although, to be honest, I’m not as sure of that as I once was), but it is clear that he’s been flirting with the antivaccine movement for a decade. Personally, I think he’s playing the role of a useful idiot for the antivaccine movement, in particular for RFK Jr. and Sharyl Attkisson. After Attkisson’s report, maybe he realized he’d been playing that role and was trying to counteract the damage to his reputation in the medical profession. It’s far too late for that, however. He took that hit ten years ago, and it was a self-inflicted wound only made worse by his affidavit and press release.