Brian Deer, the British journalist who claimed researcher Andrew Wakefield committed fraud by linking the MMR vaccine to autism, now admits one of his key allegations against Wakefield may be flat-out wrong. Yet he insists it's no big deal -- that it does nothing to undercut his claim that Wakefield is "an elaborate fraud."
“Not one of the children were reported on truthfully. Wakefield lied again and again,” journalist Brian Deer said in his post on Saturday, referring to Wakefield 12-child case series published in the Lancet in 1998. But in the same post, Deer acknowledged that, contrary to his previous reporting, he is now unsure whether Wakefield falsely changed the timing of the MMR shot to put it before the autism symptoms began in a key case.
“Who can say?” Deer wrote Saturday.
The allegation that Wakefield reversed the timing of the shot -- clear evidence of fraud, if true -- was featured in detail as the shocking opening to Deer’s 2012 series in the British Medical Journal titled “How the Case Against the MMR Was Fixed.”
Child 11’s autism symptoms developed "two months earlier than reported in the Lancet, and a month before the boy had MMR," Deer reported, “too soon” to be the cause. That “must have been a disappointment” to Wakefield, who proceeded to switch the sequence to suit his bias, Deer wrote. The father angrily “spotted the anomaly” after Deer identified and interviewed him, but “needn’t have worried” that Wakefield would get away with it: “My investigation of the MMR issue exposed the frauds behind Wakefield’s research.”
But on Saturday, after I showed that Deer is the one who got the sequence wrong – that the shot indisputably did come first, followed by the development of regressive autism -- Deer wrote: “Who can say, years later?” In fact, I can say: The father, whom I also identified and interviewed, wrote Wakefield as early as 1997, and contemporaneous medical records establish, that the child got the MMR at 15 months, became sick for several months, developed autism symptoms by 18 months, and was given a formal autism diagnosis at age 3. The father has always said he believes the shot caused all those consequences -- none of which Deer managed to reflect in his own investigation despite interviewing and e-mailing with Father 11 over an extended period of time.
The fact that a core element of his claim of research fraud is now a matter of uncertainty to Deer, the only man who made it, is a remarkable development under any circumstance, but considering the impact the claim has had on the autism debate in subsequent years, it is extraordinary. The claim has been used by officials around the world to say concerns about autism and vaccines have been "debunked" because they originated from a fraudulent research report. A typical example: Senator Dianne Feinstein of California wrote a constituent last week: “I understand that many parents are also concerned that vaccines may cause autism. This claim was published in 1998, in an article in the Lancet, a British medical journal. The researcher who authored the article was later found to have deliberately falsified data to produce a fraudulent link ..."
Equally striking is how little its accuracy seems to matter to Deer, convinced as he is that Wakefield's status as a charlatan is beyond dispute, even if such a central "fact" no longer supports it.
Deer, a veteran newspaper correspondent who, as he frequently points out, has won numerous prestigious journalism awards including the British equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for his Wakefield investigation, on Saturday offered no convincing reason for how he could have gotten something so central to his fraud claim against Wakefield so wrong. Instead he portrayed the father’s account as a “competing” explanation to the one Deer had independently settled on, based on a couple of unrelated court documents that led him to falsely infer that the autism symptoms preceded the shot in Child 11. Standard journalistic practice would be to check that assumption against the other, far more dispositive evidence that refuted it, and with the child’s father, who subsequently told me: "Mr. Deer’s article makes me appear irrational for continuing to believe that the MMR caused difficulties which predated its administration."
Instead, on Saturday Deer sneered at the messenger – me – as he staged a full-scale retreat from the facts, using Father 11's acknowledged but irrelevant antipathy toward Wakefield as cover. He called me “an undistinguished former journalist” who now runs a website “largely funded by anti-vaccine profiteers,” claiming that I had been “dumped some years ago from his post as a copy editor for a news agency owned by the Rev Sun Myung Moon - himself convicted of fraud … Olmsted has since sought a livelihood from his website, misleading vulnerable parents of children with autism. … He sought to profit with his website by lying to parents whom he disgustingly purports to champion” and followed “British research cheat” Wakefield “into the toilet.”
Whatever. On Saturday Deer also tried to elevate a secondary issue – how long after the shot the autism symptoms occurred in Child 11 – into a replacement for his now-discredited claim that the entire sequence was reversed, an incomparably more serious and black-and-white issue.
Ultimately, Deer suggested, the truth is unknowable.
“The father says one thing, the medical records another,” as Deer put it on Saturday. In fact, the father says one thing, and the medical records back him. (That does not mean the vaccine caused the autism, of course, but it does mean the father believed it did, and that Wakefield got the sequence right.) Only Deer’s idiosyncratic and journalistically unjustified misuse of a couple of stray medical records, unchecked by the reality described by everyone else, says another.
And if that’s not enough, well, Wakefield’s license to practice medicine was revoked and the Lancet paper was retracted (largely based on the “facts” Deer alleged).
At some point, though, Deer’s claims – or anyone else's – must hinge on the facts of individual cases if they are to add up to widely accepted evidence of “Wakefield’s grotesque misconduct.” Just saying so doesn’t make it so; referring to “lie after lie” doesn't constitute "an elaborate fraud" unless each "lie" can be shown to be exactly that. (Deer’s piece on my own reporting was titled, “Dan Olmsted lies for research doctor.” One is tempted to rewrite the headline as "Lying Undistinguished Former Journalist Lies for Lying Research Fraud Wakefield.")
The timing of shots and symptoms in just 12 children more than a decade ago may seem trivial, but the issue is anything but arcane. Millions of cases of autism have occurred since 1998, when Wakefield sounded what he believed was an “early warning” of a possible link between vaccination and autism that required further research and led to his suggestion that until that was complete, the M, M, and R in the MMR should be given separately. Thousands of parents have subsequently described such an outcome, but because Wakefield has supposedly been “discredited” and his work “debunked” -- by Brian Deer -- that and other evidence have been dismissed.
I first wrote about Deer’s investigation in 2012. Let me again spell out what I learned from Father 11 and how it differed from Deer’s account.
I met Father 11, who like Deer I identified from my own independent reporting, at a Peet’s Coffee shop in an affluent, picture-perfect Southern California enclave, and we sat outside in the mid-60s sunshine he jokingly called “a little frosty.” A wealthy businessman who lives in a gated community nearby, he wore a light jacket emblazoned with “Cal,” for the University of California at Berkeley where he got an engineering degree. He carried a thin file folder and a spiral notebook.
In this laid-back setting, it was hard to grasp the role he and his family have played in one of the major medical controversies of our time, one that unfolded in a foggy city 6,000 miles to the east.
This father is Deer’s best witness among the parents of the 12 children described in the Lancet paper – in fact, his only one, the lone parent who is hostile to Wakefield, not just a little frosty, but coldly angry. His anonymous comments to Deer in the BMJ seemed to fully support the January 5, 2011, cover story: “Secrets of the MMR Scare: How the Case Against the MMR Was Fixed.”
“My investigation of the MMR issue exposed the frauds behind Wakefield’s research,” wrote the ludicrously self-aggrandizing correspondent.
Child 11, in fact, was Deer’s opening into fraud. He was among those “whose parents apparently blamed MMR,” but Deer commented acidly that “Child 11’s case must have been a disappointment. Records show his behavioural symptoms began too soon.” [Italics in original] Deer quoted from a Royal Free Hospital discharge summary: “His developmental milestones were normal until 13 months of age. In the period 13-18 months he developed slow speech patterns and repetitive hand movements. Over this period his parents remarked on his slow gradual deterioration.”
Deer summarized: “That put the symptom two months earlier than reported in the Lancet, and a month before the boy had MMR. And this was not the only anomaly to catch the father’s eye. …” (Note that it is Deer, not the discharge paper, saying the symptoms came “a month before the boy had MMR.”)
Well yes, if you’ve got a parent saying that a child developed autism before he got the MMR shot, and you’ve got a research paper saying the opposite and suggesting a link between the shot and the disorder, and pulling the same stunt with several other children, you’ve got your fraud right there.
The BMJ report was the coup de grace for serious consideration of a link between vaccines and autism. Wakefield was “convicted of fraud,” wrote Time magazine in an article titled “The Dangers of the Antivaccine Movement.” An editorial in The New York Times, titled Autism Fraud,noted Britain’s General Medical Council had already stripped Wakefield of his medical license, and the Lancet retracted the paper: “Now the British Medical Journal has taken the extraordinary step of publishing a lengthy report by Brian Deer, the British investigative journalist who first brought the paper’s flaws to light — and has put its own reputation on the line by endorsing his findings.”
Indeed it did.
“Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare,” Editor in Chief Fiona Godlee wrote. She said “there is no doubt it was Wakefield” who was responsible for the “elaborate fraud,” despite having 12 co-authors.
Hold the door, please. I was about to learn that Deer’s explosive claim about Child 11 – Exhibit A in this alleged hoax -- was false. And that was just the first step of my journey into a world where things were not at all as they seemed.
The father opened the file folder – guarding the papers against a fickle coastal breeze -- and showed me a letter he had written on January 1, 1997, to “Dr. Andrew Wakefield, Royal Free Hospital, London, England.”
"My son [name deleted] at age 15 months, was immunized with the Merck MMR vaccine and became ill for the next several months,” the letter began.
“As his pediatric records indicate he came down with a viral infection, and shortly thereafter viral pneumonia. His condition slowly deteriorated over time, and was diagnosed as being autistic on his birthday at age 3. The onset of his autistic behavior began around 18 months. … He was diagnosed as moderate to severe, with no speech, no eye contact, and cognitive function at 6 months overall.”
Multiple specialists in the United States confirmed the autism diagnosis, the letter added, as well as their suspicions of the MMR vaccine as the cause. Further workups in California also revealed “indeterminant inflammatory bowel disease” -- the dual syndrome Wakefield was then investigating at the Royal Free. That was why the father wanted the hospital’s pediatric gastroenterologists to evaluate his child.
So – first came the shot, then the symptoms. The father’s account, and medical records created before he got anywhere near Wakefield, could not be clearer. But didn’t he tell Brian Deer exactly the opposite, as recounted in the opening of the BMJ cover story? And didn’t a hospital record confirm that?
No. And no.
Though you’d never know it, the father was actually disputing how long after the shot specific symptoms occurred. In fact, the father did directly blame the MMR for causing his son’s illnesses and autistic regression – a fact that appears to have escaped Deer’s notice, or at least acknowledgement.
Yes, the father was angry at Wakefield. Yes, he disagreed with other points, some of them unrelated to the content of the Lancet article. But no – he did not say that the symptoms came before the shot. That was not an “anomaly” in the Lancet paper that caught his eye, as Deer wrote.
And the discharge document itself? It was simply wrong, one of thousands of pieces of paper generated by many medical personnel in a complicated medical case stretching over many years; perhaps the “13-18 months” was a typo for “15-18,” since that is what the father had reported all along. Regardless, the father says he never told Deer that the symptoms came first, and there is no evidence to the contrary. Deer apparently did not bother to check that one piece of paper against the large volume of other evidence, or to confirm it with the father, or to make sure that his own claim that symptoms began “a month before the boy had MMR” coincided with any actual chronology.
As far as I can tell, no one on the planet -- no doctor, no parent, no document – has ever said Child 11 was anything but healthy and developing normally before the MMR. No one, that is, but Brian Deer in the BMJ. And here we see Deer at work: Because Wakefield was by definition a fraud – because Deer said so – any discrepancies between data in the Lancet paper and any other source was proof against Wakefield. One document says 13-18 months for the period of regression? That was evidence enough that Wakefield “used bogus data … to manufacture a link” between the MMR and autism.
To my surprise as we sat outside in Southern California, the father told me he hadn’t read the BMJ article, and he declined my offer to quote from it or have him read it during our visit. He would rather lay out the sequence in his own words, he told me.
That turned out to be a useful approach.
His son had been completely healthy and developing normally, he said, until the MMR shot at 15 months triggered a downhill progression.
“I very much believe it,” he said about the relationship of the shot to the symptoms: The measles component of the vaccine triggered an immune deficiency that produced the cascade of devastating physical and mental problems. This, in fact, was Wakefield’s provisional hypothesis.
How did Brian Deer miss all this? How did he misrepresent the core of the alleged fraud and claim the symptoms came before the shot? How did he rely on the father to rage against Wakefield but completely omit the fact he believed his child’s autism did not just come after the vaccine but was caused by it?
Who can say?
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.