For those who have followed the story of Andrew Wakefield, the fact that he had multiple conflicts of interest is not news. The subjects in his now retracted 1998 paper in The Lancet were far from a random sample of autistics. They were even far from a random sample of autistics with GI problems. Brian Deer has made this very clear. The GMC ruled that it is clear that Andrew Wakefield was fully aware of the biased nature of these children.
But, Brian Deer was not the first to catch on. A letter to the Lancet in May 1998, a few short months after the now retracted Wakefield paper was published, a letter to the editor was published. It was by a Mr. Rouse, a public heath professional:
“Sir – After reading Andrew Wakefield and colleagues’ article I did a simple internet search and quickly found the Society for the Autistically Handicapped. I downloaded a 48 page fact sheet produced for the Society by Dawbarns, a firm of solicitors in King’s Lynn.
It seems likely then that some of the children investigated by Wakefield et al came to attention because of the activities of this Society and information from parents referred in this way would suffer from recall bias. It is a pity that Wakefield et al do not identify the manner in which the 12 children investigated were referred (e.g. from local GPs, self-referral via parents, or secondary/tertiary or international referral). Furthermore, if some children were referred directly or indirectly because of the activities of the Society for the Autistically Handicapped, Wakefield should have declared his co-operation with that organisation.”
It was so close to exposing the truth, but there would be another 6 years before Brian Deer would reopen the question and show that Andrew Wakefield did indeed have serious conflicts of interests (as well as many ethical failings) in the Lancet paper.
Mr. Rouse stressed the “Society for the Autistically Handicapped”, which Mr. Wakefield was able to claim no association with. Here, read the Wakefield response for yourself. The first two paragraphs refer to other letters to the Lancet, I am only showing the response to the Rouse letter:
A Rouse suggests that litigation bias might exist by virtue of information that he has downloaded from the Internet, from the Society for the Autistically Handicapped. Only one author (AJW) has agreed to help evaluate a small number of these children on behalf of the Legal Aid Board. These children have all been seen expressly on the basis that they were referred through the normal channels (eg, from general practitioner, child psychiatrist, or community paediatrician) on the merits of their symptoms. AJW had never heard of the Society for the Autistically Handicapped and no fact sheet has been provided for them to distribute to interested parties. The only fact sheet that we have produced is for general practitioners, which describes the background and protocol for investigation of children with autism and gastrointestinal symptoms. Finally all those children referred to us (including the 53 who have been investigated already and those on a waiting list that extends into 1999) have come through the formal channels described above. No conflict of interest exists.
Much discussion went into this exchange. There even appears to be two versions of the Rouse letter.
Mr. Wakefield argued that his response was factually correct. That he responded to some specific questions raised by the Rouse letter. I am reminded of the courtroom oath in the United States, that one must tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Mr. Wakefield seems to avoid “the whole truth” here and elsewhere.
Here is what the prosecution had to say about Mr. Wakefield’s response:
So even at that stage, we suggest that Dr Wakefield failed to set out in straightforward terms the nature of his involvement with the litigation and the receipt of funding, because he says he has never heard of the Society for the Autistically Handicapped – well, fair enough – but he does not state that he had heard of, and had been working for more than two years with, Dawbarns, who were the solicitors in the MMR litigation, as an expert for them. That is despite the fact that he is responding to an allegation which he himself understood to be alleging litigation bias.
Secondly, he says that he “has agreed to help evaluate a small number of these children on behalf of the Legal Aid Board”, but he makes no reference to the fact that they had funded his research to the tune of £25,000 at that stage, with more anticipated to come.
Dr Wakefield’s explanation for that, you will not be surprised to hear, is that he was responding to specific points only. It is our submission that it is a hallmark of his evidence that he falls back on this kind of terminological or grammatical analysis of allegations or questions which have been put to him in an attempt to obscure his own failure to respond openly and honestly and then he places the burden on others to pin him down and to ask for what he actually describes as “further and better particulars”. So he says that is what should be done if people want straightforward answers, in effect.
It is worth seeing how Mr. Wakefield’s colleagues thought of the Rouse letter. In summarizing the defense for Prof. Walker-Smith (one of the Wakefield team who was also sanctioned by the GMC), his attorney noted
(a) At the time that the Lancet children were investigated at the Royal Free, Professor Walker-Smith had no knowledge of Dr Wakefield’s dealings with the Legal Aid Board.
(b) Some time around the beginning of 1997, Professor Walker-Smith became aware that Dr Wakefield was acting as an expert on behalf of a number of children in a group action concerning MMR. Professor Walker-Smith did not want to have any involvement in actual or potential litigation.
(c) Professor Walker-Smith was not aware of the litigation status of the Lancet children at the time that the Lancet paper was written.
(d) It was not until the Rouse correspondence in the Lancet in 1998 that Professor Walker-Smith became aware that Dr Wakefield had agreed to “evaluate a small number of these children on behalf of the Legal Aid Board”. This was after the Lancet paper had been published.
(e) It was not until Mr Deer contacted him many years later that he was informed about a sum of money that had allegedly been paid to Dr Wakefield by the Legal Aid Board.
(f) It was not until 2004 that Professor Walker-Smith learned the number of Lancet children that were part of the “class action” in which Dr Wakefield was involved.
There is a lot in that statement of interest, but for this discussion I will focus on the statement that Mr. Wakefield did not disclose to his colleagues that some of the children he was working were involved with the Legal Aid Board. They learned about it from the Rouse letter. Why wasn’t Mr. Wakefield transparent even with his own colleagues?
Back to the Wakefield response, I think that it is a stretch to say that “no conflict of interest exists” or that the children came through formal channels. This ignores the fact that Mr. Wakefield played an active part in recruiting children into the study. This ignores the fact that Mr. Wakefield was aware that there indeed was a litigation bias involved in both himself and many of the study subjects.
As long as we are looking at the letters to the Lancet, here is one by Barbara Loe Fisher, of the self-named National Vaccine Information Center (in reference to a letter to the Lancet by members of the CDC):
“The pre-emptive strike by US vaccine policymakers on Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues’ investigation into the immunopathology of children with chronic enterocolitis and regressive developmental disorder brings into sharp relief the inappropriate intervention of politics into what should be an apolitical scientific examination.”
What is brought “into sharp relief” was that Mr. Wakefield’s study was not an “apolitical scientific examination”. Rather it was a litigation funded and driven project where crucial facts were hidden from the public. A true vaccine safety organization, which Ms. Fisher’s NVIC is not, would now be condemning Mr. Wakefield’s manipulation of the story. Instead, she gives him awards.
The Rouse letter shows that Mr. Wakefield failed in his duty to explain the details of his research to the public, and to his own colleagues. From where I sit, it also looks as though the Lancet failed to ask the direct questions that should have been raised at this point. They allowed Mr. Wakefield to avoid the sticky questions raised by the fact that Mr. Wakefield was involved in the MMR litigation.
Of course it is easy in hindsight to see the patterns. At the time, Mr. Wakefield was a highly respected researcher and much of what we now know was hidden. But it is very frustrating to think that the story could have been (should have been) exposed so quickly after the publication of the Lancet paper.