The Lancet’s two days to bury bad news

19 Jan

Part three of Brian Deer’s series in the BMJ, The Lancet’s two days to bury bad news, has just been released. As you can imagine from the title, he lays out how the Lancet responded to the news that Brian Deer was publishing a story on the Wakefield team’s article in The Lancet.

Brian Deer’s first article in the Sunday Times was published February 22, 2004. On February 18, Mr. Deer met with the editor of the Lancet and other senior staff for five hours.

I had assumed that when I finished Horton would say that an investigation was needed to untangle these complex matters. There were at least three strands: possible research fraud, unethical treatment of vulnerable children, and Wakefield’s conflict of interest through the lawyer. But within 48 hours, and working with the paper’s three senior authors, the journal was to publish a 5000 word avalanche of denials, in statements, unretracted to this day.

Mr. Deer has investigated what was going on behind the scenes at the Lancet and at the Royal Free. Statements to the press claim by Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, claim that an investigation was made at the Royal Free which “cleared Wakefield of wrongdoing”. According to Mr. Deer’s investigation, no formal investigation was conducted. Rather, the Royal Free chose Doctors Wakefield, Murch and Walker-Smith, authors of the paper in question, to prepare the response.

The Lancet’s statements came on on Friday, 48 hours after the meeting with Brian Deer and 2 days before his article was set to run in the Sunday Times in an apparent attempt to

“The Lancet editor’s actions have been to regard the allegations . . . as allegations of research misconduct, and following the medical editorial code has carried out an investigation according to agreed guidelines, and intends to publish the result of the investigation pre-emptively,” Hodgson told his UCL superiors in a memo that Friday. “No doubt one—but I believe only one—motive is to safeguard the Lancet’s reputation by getting the riposte in first, and ‘spoiling’ the story.”

The media furor over these revelations led to, amongst other things, the GMC hearing which would eventually strip Mr. Wakefield of his license to practice medicine in the UK:

Wakefield attempted to brazen it out, issuing a further statement to media. “It has been proposed that my role in this matter should be investigated by the General Medical Council,” he said on the Monday. “I not only welcome this, I insist on it, and I will be making contact with the GMC personally in the forthcoming week.”

The same day, a caseworker for the regulator called me from Manchester. Did I have any further information? And two days later, at 12.16 Wednesday, I emailed him the conclusions of my research. I summarised what I had said to the Lancet’s senior staff and pledged my cooperation, in the public interest.

The above sets out the timeline for the onset of the GMC hearing. For those who continue to claim that Mr. Deer was the “claimant”, I doubt even more evidence will dissuade them.

The editorial that the BMJ published along side the Deer article is clear in how serious they take the lack of oversight that went into this research and the initial investigation, placing Mr. Wakefield’s work alongside some of the worst examples of medical research gone wrong in the past century:

Unfortunately, we have been here before. Investigators involved with the 1932 US Public Health Service Tuskegee Syphilis Study deceitfully enrolled subjects with latent syphilis and denied them available treatment for 40 years in order to study the natural course of the disease.(4) As part of a 1963 study to determine the body’s ability to reject foreign cells, patients at the Brooklyn Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital were injected with live cancer cells without their knowledge and without oversight from the institution’s research committee.(5) From 1944 to 1974, the US government conducted several radiation experiments, some of which involved the use of non-therapeutic radioactive tracers in children and increased their risk of developing cancer.(6) And in 1981, it was discovered that John Darsee, a clinical investigator at Harvard Medical School, had fabricated data in several experiments published in high profile medical journals that ultimately culminated in widespread retractions of his work and a ban from funding from the National Institutes of Health for 10 years.(7) These experiments have since become symbolic of unethical research on human subjects and of scientific misconduct, and there is little doubt that Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study will too.(8)

They go beyond this and ask the pertinent question–how did this happen and how do we avoid it in the future?

How could this happen again? To answer this, perhaps we need to focus less on the people involved and more on the defects within the biomedical research enterprise that permit such egregious misconduct. After all, Wakefield was able to circumvent the existing safeguards established to ensure the responsible conduct of research, the protection of research subjects, and the accurate and honest publication of research findings.

The editorial discusses that “research incidents” like those surrounding Mr. Wakefield should be framed as adverse events and attacked similarly. It is a model which will no doubt be criticized by those who see autism as an adverse event to MMR, but it does lay out a framework of how to respond.

The editorial concludes:

Thirteen years later, we are only now beginning to understand the root causes of the multiple system failures involved in the Wakefield incident. We must strengthen our ability to investigate research adverse events. We need to use the tools and techniques available to protect the safety of patients in the clinical realm to protect research subjects. We also need to rethink and reform our customs and culture. The disastrous impact that Wakefield’s study has had on vaccine coverage, recrudescence of disease, public trust, and, most of all, science, requires that we do so in haste.

As we leave this subject, it is worth looking to the words of Andrew Wakefield himself. Words which resonate in a manner Mr. Wakefield did not intend, but resonate nonetheless:

The medical science, the medical system, the scientific system has failed you, for which I am ashamed.
–Andrew Wakefield, May 26, 2009.

He meant the statement as an accusation, that he was ashamed on behalf of the rest of the system, not his own missteps. I find the statement clearly ironic. He is correct, the medical science, the medical system, the scientific system has failed us. His efforts in the Lancet (and elsewhere) are an example of that failure. They do not stand outside of it.

Science has a very difficult choice. To choose between fidelity or collusion.
–Andrew Wakefield, May 26, 2009.

Too right, Mr. Wakefield. Too right. Of course, science had that choice in 1998 as well. You made the wrong choice.

12 Responses to “The Lancet’s two days to bury bad news”

  1. brian January 19, 2011 at 04:43 #

    “The medical science, the medical system, the scientific system has failed you, for which I am ashamed.”—Andrew Wakefield, May 26, 2009.

    That’s quite beautiful, Sullivan. Could you please provide a link or a cite?

    • Sullivan January 19, 2011 at 05:19 #


      Again I will stress that Mr Wakefield meant this as an accusation not an admission.

      It’s from this video

      From the vaccine “choice” rally in Chicago.

    • Sullivan January 19, 2011 at 05:25 #

      While you are at it, listen for this quote:

      “”We have been inundated with science that says there is no relationship. It resembles the science that took two decades to dispel the notion that tobacco is actually not good for you”

      I suspect he didn’t mean to say “not”.

  2. Gina January 19, 2011 at 16:08 #


    I wanted to read Deer’s piece before I read your post, but I just wanted to say that as I’m half way through it I have an overwhelming sense of sadness and I’m not sure exactly why. I guess it’s because it’s terribly depressing to see so many individuals work so hard at covering up a mess than just cleaning it up. Did anyone else feel this, too?

  3. sheldon101 January 19, 2011 at 16:41 #

    I’ve never seen much of a conspiracy in the Wakefield debacle. Wakefield and his supporters believe there was a conspiracy. They were right and I was wrong.

    Despite all the links by the editors of The Lancet to Big Pharma and despite the advertising money that The Lancet received fro Big Pharma, the conspiracy wasn’t for the benefit of Big Pharma. The conspiracy was to protect The Lancet. It just so happened that to do so, they ended up protecting Wakefield.

  4. Brian Deer January 19, 2011 at 19:37 #

    Andrew Wakefield – erasure finalised.

    The UK General Medical Council today finalised the erasure of Andrew Wakefield from the medical register. He was ordered to be struck off last May, but, like all UK doctors, he had a statutory right of appeal to the High Court.

    He made numerous claims to his supporters that he was appealing the decision of the GMC – which found him guilty on four counts of dishonesty and a dozen of abusing developmentally challenged children – but the GMC has today confirmed that this is not the case, and that the revocation of his license to practise medicine is complete.

  5. Gina January 19, 2011 at 20:02 #

    “He made numerous claims to his supporters…”

    Mr. Deer, as I’ve seen illustrated numerous times, they’d believe him if he told them the world was flat. Sadly, most, if not all of them, are parents who deserve better but settle for him.

    Though it’s relieving that his license revocation is final, this is no real comfort since he’s been at this for years in America without a license at all. And he’s being applauded as having “treated” children with autism when, in fact, he’s not not allowed to in the US and, worse, he’s not even a specialist in pediatric development.

  6. Craig Willoughby January 19, 2011 at 22:03 #

    Personally, I’m furious at Wakefield. I think part of it is wanting to believe him and thinking he had answers to my son’s problems. The rest of it is feeling duped; that is a feeling I despise more than anything. It makes me even more furious to think about how far he has set back research into children like my son. I’m hoping that fury fades soon.

    Admittedly, I have not read his book yet. I’m hoping that when I get it, I can try to read it as objectively as I tried to read Mr. Deer’s research and the GMC transcripts. To do any less would be dishonest to myself.

    Unfortunately, every time I see him now, I see red. I saw him on GMA the other day, and I had to force myself to watch it.

  7. Julian Frost January 20, 2011 at 19:23 #

    Hi Craig.
    It’s not nice knowing you’ve been had. I’m impressed by your being willing to take a second look at the evidence. That’s very hard for most people to do.
    All the best to you, your son and the other members of your family.

  8. sharon January 20, 2011 at 22:59 #

    Hi Craig, I agree with Julian. I also see red when Wakefield appears, for similar reasons. Except I didnt buy what he was selling so don’t have the ‘duped’ frustration to deal with as well. It takes a person of intelligence and integrity to take the position you now have.
    Good luck to you and your son.


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