Updated: Oct 9
This is Part 1 of a series looking at the Andrew Wakefield "MMR vaccine-autism" hoax 25 years after it was published in the Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. This now retracted 1998 study has had a devastating impact on the world by adding substantial fuel to the anti-vaccine movement, likely leading to countless deaths from Covid-19. For this first blog post, I will focus on the undisclosed conflicts of interest in this fraud case. I note that basically all of the problems with Adrew Wakefield's study were found by a reporter named Brian Deer. Academia did very little to self-correct, and resisted in several important ways.
Wakefield profited from Litigation of Vaccine Manufacturers
When you publish a scientific article arguing something of immense importance that runs counter to existing paradigms (in this case Wakefield argued that vaccines were harming children), it's important to disclose whether you are financially benefiting from your assertions. The reason is bias. Human investigators are biased to find whatever they are paid to find. In Wakefield's case, he was paid to find problems with vaccines so that's what he did. Neither his coauthors nor the journal were privy to Wakefield's conflicts of interest.
Who paid Wakefield to find problems with vaccines? In a roundabout way it was actually the UK government. At the time, the UK government had a fund set aside to help poor people bring lawsuits against big companies. This plan was very poorly conceived and has since been discontinued. Before it was discontinued, a large portion of the money found its way to attorney, Richard Barr, who in turn funneled a portion of the money to Andrew Wakefield. Barr intended to sue vaccine manufacturers for damages on behalf of his growing list of clients with various childhood ailments, and Wakefield was his hired gun, bringing empirical evidence to support Barr's legal claims.
In total, over the course of their eight year relationship, it appears that Wakefield received the equivalent of $900,000 USD from his lucrative relationship with Barr. This arrangement was in place well before the now-retracted 1998 Lancet paper in question was published, and seems to be the primary driving force behind the paper.
This undisclosed conflict of interest alone should have warranted the paper's retraction. How can a serious scientific journal publish an anti-vaccine paper from someone who is paid to find problems by a lawyer suing the vaccine industry? However, the editors of the Lancet acknowledged the conflicts of interest in 2004 but declined to retract the fatally flawed study, instead taking only token actions (commentaries, etc.).
Wakefield's paper was published in February of 1998 and the lawsuit launched in October of the same year.
Wakefield's Attempts to Further Monetize the Hoax
In addition to these financial payouts from litigation, Wakefield made several other attempts to monetize his hoax:
Single vaccine patents -- Wakefield claimed that MMR when given as 3 separate vaccines (measles, mumps and rubella) was safer, and he obviously intended to monetize this false claim, hence the patent); he filed his patent in 1997 prior to publishing his research blaming the MMR vaccine for autism
Diagnostic testing for autistic enterocolitis (Wakefield's fictitious disease wherein vaccines cause gut problems that lead to autism); Wakefield hoped this fake testing would earn him and his investors the equivalent of over $150 million USD per year in today's money
Selling books, documentaries, speaking engagements and other anti-vaccine nonsense
This is only a partial list. It's very difficult to know all the ways Wakefield has found to monetize his grift.
It is truly fascinating (and also quite disappointing) that science can allow a man with such a long list of conflicts of interest to come onto the stage and dominate the conversation. It's also very troubling that such a large population of people, particularly in North America, would accept his fraud even though it's been so thoroughly debunked. Another issue is that it shouldn't be left to a lone reporter (Brian Deer) to find all of these problems. Academia must learn to be self-correcting.
About the author
Aaron Charlton, PhD is a science and medical blogger and entrepreneur. He writes for Away Clinic and other medical clients. He also maintains a website called OpenMKT.org that is aimed at improving transparency and quality of scientific research within the field of marketing. He is sometimes quoted by the media on matters of scientific integrity.