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By John Stone
A welcome for James Grundvig’s book about the Thorsen affair, The Master Manipulator , notwithstanding a certain irony in the title: Poul Thorsen, it must be said, was no Moriarty. In the end this is a tawdry saga of a man who went a little too far in defrauding an institution, the US Centers for Disease Control, which habitually rewarded dishonesty and mediocrity in the public service. We have been here before, for example with David Lewis’s exposé of the Environmental Protection Agency in Science for Sale . This was certainly a place where Poul Thorsen fitted.
Many elements in this story are already familiar though Grundvig sheds a little light on the murky corridors of power and influence. We learn how on secondment to the CDC Thorsen steps into the breach to provide a data source of Denmark’s national disease registry, to which he had free access. The early part of this enterprise, as we know, was the autism vaccine cover-up: the CDC needed data and Thorsen had a fortuitous supply. It was against this background that Thorsen’s very grand sounding research group North Atlantic Neuro-Epidemiology Alliance (NANEA) had been formed in 1999 (was he the Secretary General?): the basic idea seems to have been that the CDC paid the research group a lot of money while Thorsen had a free data source and could underpay and cheat his Danish employees.
It is not very clear how much of a role Thorsen actually played in the research: Kreesten Madsen, lead author of the two key autism studies used by the CDC and the Institute of Medicine in supposedly refuting a vaccine connection, denied to Grundvig that Thorsen had played any at all. This in itself – given the presence over Thorsen on the list of authors – suggests fraud. But in all probability the strategy for massaging the figures in the notorious MMR paper (which echoes that used at the CDC for the thimerosal paper by Vestraeten) came from the CDC’s veteran of the Agent Orange cover up, Coleen Boyle. Boyle wrote in a memo about thimerosal and autism in April 2000:
“... "2. Since most of the dx's [diagnoses] are generally not picked up until the 2nd or 3rd year of life had you considered eligibility criteria of at least 18 months or 2 years?? What happens if you do this?" ....”
In other words: “Why don’t we dilute the autism data for the vaccinated group using the cases that will not have been diagnosed yet to mask the effect that we all know about?”.
There is inevitably a lot of speculation about the role in all of this of Thorsen’s girlfriend and co-author, Diane Schendel. Schendel, an epidemiologist employed within the CDC, followed Thorsen out to Denmark. It seems plausible that she was actually sent out to keep an eye on him, which may have worked in the early years (which of course were the most critical for the autism/vaccine issue and the CDC). And as we learn from Grundvig it was only the retirement of Thorsen’s business partner in NANEA, Ib Terp, in 2005 that Thorsen started syphoning off huge sums of money for his own personal use. By that time the Institute of Medicine report was in and the autism/vaccine connection was supposed to be history. Schendel remained on in Denmark at Aarhus University - still closely (and perhaps anomalously) associated with the CDC but increasingly less associated with Thorsen.
Thorsen’s basic problem is that he does not seem to have been good at anything much: by all accounts he was a poor scientist, researcher and teacher, and he was not good with money – nor in the end was he a good fraudster. But unextradited by the US government, five years after his indictment, he remains (scandalously) a protected man.
James Grundvig’s book gives us many insights into thoroughly rotten culture which gave rise to this chilling, outrageous story.
John Stone is UK Editor for Age of Autism.