By Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill
In bits and pieces, in Danish and English, from three universities in two hemispheres and the CDC in Atlanta, a picture has begun forming in the past few days that is already startling in its outline: Paul Thorsen, one of the key scientists involved in CDC-backed studies exonerating vaccines as a cause of autism, is under investigation for collecting millions of dollars in bogus “grant” money, misrepresenting himself to his employers and the world and possibly forging the documents that enabled the scam.
Even more astonishing, it appears the CDC and several other major autism research centers have known about this for months and stayed publicly silent, even as the debate over autism and vaccines has reached several decisive moments -- and a new decision is expected any day from U.S. vaccine court. The CDC in particular would have a hard time claiming ignorance about the suspected crime -- at least three of the forged documents were in the agency’s name, and it helped uncover the fraud last year.
In addition, several current CDC employees including Drs. Diana Schendel, Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp and Catherine Rice were affiliated with Thorsen’s now-defunct research group. Age of Autism has obtained Internet-archived pages from the Web site of the North Atlantic Neuro-Epidemiology Alliances (NANEA) that list the members of the “Atlanta autism team” including Schendel, Yeargin-Allsopp and Rice, all of whom have been in leadership positions in the CDC’s autism epidemiology projects. Schendel is described as NANEA’s “coordinator at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, USA.” (The CDC did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment.)
Meanwhile, Thorsen apparently continues his involvement on an American Psychiatric Association committee that is revising the classification of autism for the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – a change that could affect how the prevalence of the disorder is calculated and its victims compensated and treated. (The APA did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment.)
Thorsen’s resume, dated Jan. 22, 2010, remains on the DSM 5 Working Group members page. (View HERE.)
He lists himself as “Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, School of Public Health, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA, USA.” (Calls and e-mails to Drexel seeking confirmation of his status there have gone unanswered.)
There is also an earlier Thorsen resume still available on an APA directory dated Jan. 12, just 10 days earlier, (View HERE)
that differs substantially from the Jan. 22 update. On that earlier resume, Thorsen calls himself “Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Institute of Public Health, University of Aarhus, Denmark, & Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, Atlanta, USA.”
What happened in 10 days to change Thorsen’s bona fides so substantially – going from apparently tenured positions at two leading autism research universities to a part-time adjunct professorship at another school?
Follow the chronology: On Jan. 22 – the day the new resume is dated – the University of Aarhus issued a statement "to whom it may concern" (View HERE)
contradicting key parts of that first resume: “In March 2009, Dr. Thorsen resigned his faculty position at Aarhus University,” the statement said, meaning, obviously, he could not have been an associate professor of epidemiology as he was claiming as late as Jan. 12, 2010. “In the meantime, it has come to the attention of Aarhus University that Dr Thomsen [sic] has continued to act in such a manner as to create the impression that he still retains a connection to Aarhus University after the termination of his employment by the university.” Of course, one way this could have come to its attention was through a resume posted at the American Psychiatric Association in which Thorsen still stated exactly that.
“Furthermore,” the statement said, “it has come to the attention of Aarhus University that Dr Poul Thorsen has held full-time positions at both Emory University and Aarhus University simultaneously. Dr Thorsens [sic] double Full-time employment was unauthorised by Aarhus University, and he engaged in this employment situation despite the express prohibition of Aar- hus University.”
Thorsen’s resume, revised and re-posted the same day as the Aarhus statement, drops the statement that he is a professor at Aarhus AND Emory, now citing only a loose academic affiliation with Drexel. It also now says his affiliation with Aarhus ended in 2008, not, as he had said 10 days earlier, that it existed “from 1998” forward to the present day. And in the update he cuts short his Emory professorship as well, saying he was at the Atlanta school in 2008-2009 (rather than from 2008 through the present). That chronology makes his tenures at Aarhus and Emory consecutive, not concurrent. Unfortunately for Thorsen, that contradicts his own original resume – and Emory contradicts the claim he was still there in 2010. On Feb. 21, 2010, the Danish publication Politiken reported [in translation]: “'He is no longer employed at Emory. He was part time occupied at the department of epidemiological research from 2003 and from April 2008 to June 2009 as full time research professor' informs assistant vice director at Emory University Sarah E. Goodwin."
All this, telling though it is in terms of favoring Aarhus’s version of events, is the least of it. The other part of the Aarhus statement said that Thorsen administered a multimillion-dollar grant from the CDC. Without naming him further, Aarhus goes on to state: “Unfortunately, a considerable shortfall in funding at Aarhus University associated with the CDC grant was discovered. In investigating the shortfalls associated with the grant, DASTI and Aarhus University became aware of two alleged CDC funding documents as well as a letter regarding funding commitments allegedly written by Randolph B. Williams of CDC's Procurement Grants Office which was used to secure advances from Aarhus University. Upon investigation by CDC, a suspicion arose that the documents are forgeries.
“DASTI conducted an internal investigation of the authenticity of the docu- ments and have filed a police report with no specific person named in the fil- ing. A police investigation is ongoing.”
Multiple Danish news sources make clear that the only suspect in any ongoing investigation anywhere is the person who held the administrative post in question and subsequently left the university – Thorsen. By now, given the fact that the CDC’s own investigation turned up the fraud, the agency presumably has had plenty of time to mull the implications. Just last month, well after the CDC had been contacted by Aarhus and determined that documents had been forged in its name, and in the middle of the Lancet’s retraction of a paper on the MMR’s possible role in the autism epidemic, the CDC’s Tom Skinner told the New York Times that the retraction “builds on the overwhelming body of research by the world’s leading scientists that concludes there is no link between M.M.R. vaccine and autism.”
Thorsen, of course, is pre-eminently one of those leading scientists and was a co-author of a New England Journal of Medicine study on the MMR. Thorsen and Aarhus, as we’ve reported for years, made important contributions to some of the most influential autism-vaccine mercury (thimerosal) studies – studies disputed as poorly done and unconvincing by critics that over the years have grown to include the head of a panel mandated by Congress to study the issue. But based on five studies, three of which included Aarhus – and one of which Thorsen co-authored -- the U.S. Institute of Medicine concluded in 2004 that “the evidence now favors rejection of a relationship between thimerosal and autism.”
The question becomes, how strong is that evidence now?
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism. Mark Blaxill is Editor at Large.