As you may have guessed if you’ve been reading this blog lately, the recent CBS story on the independence of vaccine supporters bothered me.
It bothers me that a news organization I grew up with would act the way they have.
Today I sent a fax to Katie Couric at CBS. The text is below:
August 4, 2008
Katie Couric, Managing Editor
CBS Television Network
524 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019-2902
Dear Ms. Couric,
It is with great dismay that I, a parent of a young child with autism, have watched the ongoing series on autism by Sharyl Attkisson. This series’s angle was illustrated in her interview with Dr. Healy, which was tainted by the unfounded statement, “There is a completely expressed concern that they don’t want to pursue a hypothesis because that hypothesis could be damaging to the public health community at large by scaring people.” I feel a good journalist would have asked for Dr. Healy to support this statement. Given the stakes involved, that would be the minimum required before airing it.
I expect you will not be surprised that I also have concerns over the recent piece questioning the independence of vocal supporters of vaccines. In particular, the part discussing Dr. Paul Offit was lacking in facts and in real analysis of those facts .
A) The statement by Dr. Offit that a child can theoretically handle 10,000 vaccines at once was made, but with no discussion. This is often quoted out of context by Dr. Offit’s detractors, intended to create the impression that his views are somehow extreme. Nothing could be farther from the truth: the statement shows the minimal demands that vaccines make on the immune system, even that of a young infant. In fact, given the number of immunological challenges in the human environment, children do receive the equivalent of thousands of vaccines every day. Dr. Offit’s statement is also not a mere opinion: it is based on calculations he has performed and published in the peer reviewed literature. No one has published a paper showing this calculation to be false or exaggerated in any way.
Given that, I would ask that if CBS wishes to present this statement in the future, they either discuss it in context or, should CBS disagree with Dr. Offit’s analysis, present a reasoned discussion of why they disagree.
B) The statement that Dr. Offit holds an endowed chair joint with the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philidelphia (CHOP) was presented as a potential conflict of interest, because much of the funding for this chair came from Merck. (Unreported by Ms. Attkisson was the fact that CHOP supplied the rest of the endowment.) As stated, it implies that this is some form of a grant, giving Merck leverage over Dr. Offit. Those of us familiar with academia know that the opposite is true: the endowment is a gift to the University, not to the individual who holds the chair, and the donor (Merck in this case) retains no control over the disbursement of funds. The recipient of the chair is chosen in a competitive process. Thus, the holder of the chair is fully independent – both of any obligation to the donor and of the continuing obligation to cover one’s salary with research grants. Ms. Attkisson’s piece implied exactly the opposite.
C) It was noted that future royalties from Dr. Offit’s patents have been sold for $182 million. First, it is worth noting that Dr. Offit and his co-inventors do not “hold” the patents, but assigned the rights to their institutions: the Wistar Institute and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. These are the groups which have negotiated the sale of future royalties. Second, it is worth noting that this sale of future royalties means that whatever statements Dr. Offit makes about vaccines can no longer have even the possible influence on his finances implied by the story.
I will not discount the fact that Dr. Offit likely has benefited financially from his efforts to produce a vaccine. Frankly, I hope he did. His vaccine saves lives throughout the world. But, the point for this discussion is that the value of these financial gains has already been determined.
Of note is the fact that no other patents or patent applications are published at present. His laboratory is closed down. Thus, there is no future vaccine which could present a possible conflict of interest for Dr. Offit.
Given these facts, what we have is a scientist who has over 25 years’ experience researching vaccines and infectious diseases, and has no financial conflicts of interest in the present or future. Isn’t this exactly what we want in a spokesperson?
This is a key point. The reason why Dr. Offit is being targeted in some quarters is that he has a book about to be published, “Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure.” Not only is it obvious that non-mainstream autism organizations like Generation Rescue would like to defuse the impact of this book before it hits, but leaders of the organization have baldly stated their plans to attempt to discredit Dr. Offit and the findings revealed in the book. The fact that Dr. Offit is willing to face their attacks, with no prospect of personal gain, bespeaks a purity of intent, not only in this venture, but also in his past statements about vaccines.
The recent incident whereby a fax from Lisa Randall of Voices For Vaccines was given within hours to Generation Rescue, an organization outside of CBS, begs the question: what is the connection between Ms. Attkisson or members of the CBS News staff and Generation Rescue? This is a serious question which I hope CBS News publicly addresses.
It also seems appropriate to ask in closing: Does Ms. Attkisson or other members of the CBS news staff involved with these stories have any conflicts of interest, real or potential, in discussing autism and/or vaccine injury? Again, I would hope that CBS News would publicly address this.
CBS made a highly unprofessional decision in sharing the fax from Ms. Randall with Generation Rescue, an organization which insults, smears and attempts to intimidate those with whom they disagree. This is unfortunate, because I would like to demonstrate the fact that I have no ties whatsoever to the pharmaceutical industry by giving my full identity. Instead, I will sign simply: