By Jake Crosby
That's what millionaire vaccine industrialist Paul Offit said to me following a talk he gave at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology, endowed by Merck. But that was not the only abusive thing he said to me. He also called me stupid, lied that I don't have Asperger Syndrome and labeled me with a new diagnosis after again calling me a stalker.
Offit's talk was part of Penn's Microbiology Seminar Series sponsored by PENN Infectious Diseases. It was titled “Rotavirus Vaccines: From Bench to Bedside.” Throughout the lecture, he talked about the different rotavirus vaccines: RotaTeq, Rotarix and RotaShield – the vaccine pulled for causing intussusception, which is a potentially fatal condition in which the intestine turns inside-out. He even discussed how he was going to lobby to bring back RotaShield in 2000, but that it was already too late and he blamed the harm to RotaShield's reputation on the ensuing controversy over mercury in vaccines. Offit also admitted that his own vaccine, RotaTeq, can cause intussusception.
I was especially surprised to hear him reveal an insight about pharmaceutical executives putting money before health:
“You never say at a pharmaceutical conference, 'it's the right thing to do.'”
At the conclusion of his talk came the Q/A session. When the moderator finally called on me, I asked:
“Hi Dr. Offit,
You didn't talk about your involvement in approving RotaShield. You told an autism parent you did not get to vote the rotavirus vaccine onto the schedule, but you voted for it three times leading up to the CDC's decision to adopt your committee's recommendation into its schedule. So how could you say you did not vote it onto the infant schedule when you clearly did?”
Offit sneered at my question and then snickered and shook his head when I mentioned the autism parent.
“Jake! How are you buddy?”
“Ladies and gentleman, this is Jake Crosby – my stalker!”
I called him out, “That's libel!”
Someone then shouted from the audience, “Are you serious?”
So I said, “This is constitutionally-protected free speech and a public event.”
“Oh really,” Offit said sarcastically.
But then surprisingly, he attempted to answer my question:
“I did not participate in the first vote to get Rotashield onto the schedule. I did participate in the vote to get it into the Vaccines For Children program [free vaccines], among other votes. Prior to my voting, I consulted the chair Dr. John Modlin [who is also conflicted with Merck, and was reprimanded for it by Congress], and he said it was okay that I participated. So I did because I was not working on a competing vaccine at the time. Ours was still many years away from completion.”
“But you were still...”
I was going to tell him that he was still working on a competing vaccine and that he still voted RotaShield onto the schedule, but the moderator cut me off:
“Let's continue talking about this afterward.”
Offit said, with a big grin:
“Oh, we can talk about this endlessly.”
Though we did talk after his lecture, it would not be about RotaShield.
Then another graduate student asked a question. While calling people like Donald Trump “idiots,” he said there are some people who have legitimate questions about vaccine safety and wanted to know how to engage those people.
“You have to use reason! But there are some people who will never stop believing,” gesturing toward me.
At the end of the talk, the woman sitting next to me asked:
“So who in your family has autism?”
Paul Offit beckoned me to the podium with his finger and then I made my way down the aisle.
When I reached the podium, I said:
“You call me a stalker and then you tell me you want to speak to me.”
He extended his hand, wanting me to shake it.
He asked with a big smirk, “Aren't you gonna shake my hand?”
“I think it would be better to not shake your hand since you've complained of receiving physical threats,” I told him.
“Shake my hand Jake,” he insisted.
“No, I won't.”
He then lost his temper very quickly.
“You vilify me online! You call me names! You say things about me that are false! You question my motives and claim I am doing this for money! I am not doing this for money, I do this to help children! You call me a millionaire vaccine industrialist! You have to stop!”
“I represent you fairly and accurately.”
“No you don't! You write about my motives! How could you possibly know what my motives are?! You don't know my motives! You don't know my motives!”
“I write about you only based on what you do and what you say.”
“No you don't! You call me a millionaire vaccine industrialist! How am I a millionaire vaccine industrialist?!”
“You made millions of dollars from the vaccine industry.”
“Millionaire vaccine industrialist implies motive! How could you be so stupid to not see that?!”
“It means someone who's made millions of dollars from the vaccine industry.”
“And how am I an industrialist?! Should I not have gone to a pharmaceutical company?! Should I have made the vaccine in my garage?!”
“No, but it didn't matter where it was made. It's still a conflict of interest with the vaccine industry.”
His fury only escalated.
“What are my motives?! What are my motives?!”
He continued pointing at me, shouting. I continued moving back and he continued to move forward, seemingly wanting to physically intimidate me.
“WHAT ARE MY MOTIVES?! WHAT ARE MY MOTIVES?!”
I put my hands up, trying to calm him:
“Easy, easy,” I said.
“WHAT ARE MY MOTIVES?! Tell me what you think my motives are!!!”
“Your motives are that you enjoy working on rotavirus vaccine development as you said at the NIH talk, and also for the money...”
“NO!! I do NOT do this for the money! That is wrong!!”
“You told American Medical News that protection from vaccine litigation improves vaccine industry profits. That's making money off the backs of vaccine-injured children.”
Here is the exact line, from American Medical News, 2008:
But other advantages to vaccine production have become increasingly evident, Dr. Offit noted. "There is a fairly beaten path in how to make them, and there is, to some extent, protection from liability in children's vaccines," he said.
But he continued the abuse:
“No, that is bullshit! I don't do this for the money! Get out of here!”
And then he said:
He gestured to the door in a fashion similar to what he did at Yale when he threw me out.
Stunned, I walked over to the moderator, introduced myself and asked his name, shaking his hand.
He replied, “Harvey Friedman.”
I commented on how appalled I was at Offit's behavior.
He agreed with me that it was not right but also said, “this is not the right forum.”
I can't imagine what is. Then Paul Offit approached me again and continued to go at it:
“You owe me an apology!”
“You owe me an apology for telling me to get the fuck out of here and calling me a piece of shit!”
Of course, those aren't the only things he owes me an apology for.
“Fine, I'm sorry! I'm sorry, now you apologize to me!”
“I'm not going to apologize to you for representing you accurately.”
“No, you do not represent me accurately!”
Then someone came up to him and said:
“He doesn't like to be shouted at; he has Asperger's.”
Then Paul Offit attempted to undiagnose me:
“No, he doesn't have Asperger's; he's got paranoid schizophrenia is what he has!”
I was stunned.
Attempting to defuse the situation, the moderator then introduced me to the graduate student who asked the question after me during Q/A.
We walked out of the auditorium to a nearby Au Bon Pain restaurant. As we were walking, he told me his name was Jonathan. I didn't get his last name; he said it too fast. He did say he was involved in vaccine research.
But I was still shaken up by what just happened:
“How could you listen to that evil man? How could you listen to him spread his lies on television and in print?”
He agreed with me that what Offit said to me was wrong, but added that I “clearly agitated him.”
I told him that Paul Offit knowingly cites tobacco science and that Institute of Medicine of which he is a member said it would never come down that autism is a true side-effect of vaccination in a meeting that led up to the 2004 IOM Report.
Jonathan told me he never heard of the report – the bible for today's vaccine injury deniers! I brought up Marie McCormick's quote on the IOM's preconceived position on autism and vaccines that, “...we will never come down that it is a true side-effect...”
“So you're saying they already came to a conclusion before looking at any evidence?”
“Well, IOM has done a lot of good things, but they are not an ancient organization. They also have some major flaws.”
I asked him:
“What was your name again?”
“I told you my name already.”
“I didn't get your last name.”
He quickly tried to change the subject:
“Let's go inside and get some coffee,” referring to the Au Bon Pain restaurant we were right outside of.
After we went in, I had the displeasure of coming across the man who Paul Offit told I did not have Asperger Syndrome, but “paranoid schizophrenia.”
After telling me he read my writing, he commented:
“I think you're a liar and I think you're despicable.”
As I was writing down what he told me, he said:
“Off the record.”
“Too late,” I said back.
He sat down with Jonathan and me. His name was Jeff Bergelson.
“Dr. Jeff Bergelson,” he emphasized to me.
“Prof. Jeff Bergelson.”
“I'm glad you're not my professor,” I told him.
“I think that feeling is mutual,” Jonathan observed.
After listening to Offit's abuse, I then had to put up with Bergelson's rant.
“Age of Autism is nothing but complete bunkum!”
He said this many times.
“I don't know if you are completely misguided or lying, but your writing is complete bunkum!”
“How is it 'bunkum,'” I asked him multiple times before he finally gave some examples, but they weren't much more specific:
“It is anti-vaccine!”
“No, it isn't!”
“You advocate treating autism with nutrients!”
“And people have improved from that,” I said, myself included.
“You advocate homeopathy for autism!”
“Well, I don't advocate that.” I think the one time that I brought up homeopathy was when I quoted Kevin Leitch of all people talking about how much it has helped his autistic daughter.
“Homeopathy is complete and utter bunkum!”
I turned to Jonathan and asked: “Do I need to hear this after what I just put up with from Offit?”
Jonathan replied, “I think it's important.”
I brought up Offit's abuse, but Bergelson went on “What Paul Offit said to you was wrong, but the things you say about Paul Offit online are bunkum! He's done more for public health than everyone else in this room combined!”
“No, he has not.”
“Oh C'mon! I'm just expressing my views about Paul Offit! You'd probably say the same about Andrew Wakefield!”
“Well, you're right about that.”
But he then went on to say:
“Andrew Wakefield's work is a load of bunkum!"
Jonathan, who was mostly quiet during this exchange, said “He did do it for money.”
“No, he didn't,” I said, “he donated that money to a project to build a new GI clinic for sick children.”
Bergelson went on about Desiree Jennings, “that crazy lady who claimed she got hurt by a flu shot! I know people who wouldn't get vaccinated against influenza because of her!”
“She did get hurt after it, she got dystonia!”
“She did not have dystonia!”
“Watch the videos of her!”
“She did not get dystonia! It's a load of bunkum!”
At one point, I asked Bergelson if he can tone down his voice.
“I'm a Jew! I make big hand gestures!”
I was not commenting on his hand gestures, but his volume. Regardless, I was shocked that he used being Jewish to excuse his bad behavior. I am sure my maternal grandfather – who passed away last November and was Jewish – would have been disgusted by this.
Perhaps realizing his mistake, Bergelson quickly changed the subject to my great great grandfather, Captain Edward Crosby:
“And I'm sorry your grandfather went down on the Titanic!”
“Great great grandfather,” I corrected him.
“Great great grandfather,” he reiterated.
“Thank you,” I said.
Suddenly, Paul Offit showed up attempting to “apologize” again:
“I'm sorry for what I said, I hope you can forgive me.”
“Okay,” I said back, not that I forgive him, but that I hear him.
Offit left and then returned yet again, angrily apologizing “I'm sorry! Okay? I'm sorry!” That was probably when he realized the full extent of what he had done and how it could damage his reputation.
I just wanted him to go away, “okay!”
After bidding a happy farewell to Bergelson and his “bunkum” rants, I went outside with Jonathan and we continued our conversation. We walked to the train station while discussing Offit's rant about me.
I complained about how Paul Offit was probably hiding something by the crazed, angry way he was acting.
Jonathan said, “Well, that's one way to look at it, but not the only way.”
I told him:
“Watch the video online of Andrew Wakefield's lecture at Brandeis and compare how he deals with critical questioners with what Paul Offit said to me today, and you'll find a stark difference.”
Jonathan promised he would.
As we walked to the train station, we had a somewhat interesting talk – about how breast feeding has an inverse association with autism, about what we thought were the top three public health issues facing the world (I said they were chronic illnesses, living conditions and health disparities), and about his participation in the never-ending quest for an HIV vaccine. I told him HIV discoverer Dr. Luc Montagnier would be speaking at the AutismOne conference later this month.
As we were approaching the train station, I told Jonathan that Paul Offit tacitly admitted the MMR vaccine causes autism, having made an oxymoronic statement on Medscape about a compensated case of vaccine injury; Offit remarked that a case of measles encephalopathy can fall in the autism spectrum without being autism (even though a disorder that falls within the autism spectrum, by definition, would be autism).
“So how do you define autism?”
I said, “Any collection of behaviors that would fall within the autism spectrum”
Then he asked me, “And you had the MMR?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, I had the MMR and I'm not autistic,” he said.
“That's because it only causes autism in certain susceptible people,” I told him.
As we were entering the station, he rehashed the fact that I call Paul Offit a millionaire vaccine industrialist by comparing him to Jonas Salk, inventor of the first effective polio vaccine:
“You know, you could argue Jonas Salk was a millionaire vaccine industrialist.”
Jonas Salk was one of Jonathan's big heroes. Until fairly recently, I had been on the fence about Salk. Then I heard that he experimented on some disabled patients, giving them an experimental flu vaccine and then exposing them to the flu. That's when I decided Salk was no longer a hero.
I chose not to share my feelings about him with Jonathan, however, because I did not want to risk completely alienating him. So instead I brought up that famous interview Salk had with CBS “See It Now” news anchor Edward R. Murrow, who asked him who owned the patent on the vaccine, to which Salk replied, “Can you patent the sun?”
Jonathan admitted, “Well, he was paid a lot of money to make that vaccine.”
But Paul Offit did make millions from vaccine earnings, which he likened to winning the lottery.
Inside the train station, Jonathan and I finally parted ways.
“I hope we will get back in touch some day,” he told me.
“I hope so, too,” I said back, “Good luck with your research!”
I do hope he'll watch Dr. Andrew Wakefield's lecture at Brandeis.
If and when he does, he will not see a doctor who curses at his critics and lies that they don't have Asperger Syndrome, but paranoid schizophrenia. He will see a doctor who shows respect for his critics and fully answers their questions, unlike Paul Offit.
Jake Crosby has Asperger Syndrome and is a contributing editor to Age of Autism. Jake is a 2011 graduate of Brandeis University with a BA in both History and Health: Science, Society and Policy. He currently attends The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services where he is studying for an MPH in epidemiology.