Must read: Brian Deer’s “The Doctor who fooled the World”

In the 1990s the British Andrew Wakefield caused a huge uproar over a speculated connection between the MMR triple vaccination and diseases of the autism spectrum as well as serious intestinal diseases. After an initially positive media hype, disappointment followed over his study and conflicts of interest. He went to America, got sponsored by a New York hedge fund giant, married a wealthy model and has since been an activist who was occasionally highlighted by the Trump administration. In the meantime, however, Trump has repeatedly recommended the COVID vaccination and the measles vaccination and the distance between him and Wakefield has grown.

One of Wakefield’s arch enemies is the journalist Brian Deer, whose book “The Doctor who fooled the World” has been available as a paperback and ebook. Deer specialized in corruption in the medical field and, among other things, brought down a pharmaceutical company because of a dangerous antibiotic cocktail. As a professional, however, Deer was aware that not every accusation is necessarily true and that not every alleged victim is a David fighting Goliath.

Wakefield knew nothing about viruses and had been a completely insignificant figure. Then he put forward the hypothesis that measles (or the measles vaccine) could trigger the intestinal disease Crohn’s disease. He received a lot of attention and even received money from the pharmaceutical giant Merck. He put together a shaky study according to which people vaccinated against measles were three times more likely to get Crohn’s disease and was published in a top publication, but with a series of disclaimers that no concrete, causal connection had yet been proven.

Parents of autistic children teamed up with lawyers: The believed the MMR vaccine was the cause of the brain damage. Wakefield was apparently contacted because of his work on Crohn’s disease and measles vaccinations. At first he said he knew nothing about autism. But then he was persuaded to take part. The more families you can find, the more likely you are to get the government to pay your legal fees. The parents were told that there were tests to clarify the situation. The parents said that their children had diarrhea from time to time and the children were then used as test subjects in the study. Dangerous invasive tests showed small abnormalities in the intestines of two out of 12 children, which later turned out to be insignificant. The researchers hoped to find evidence of measles viruses in samples of intestinal tissue and they put together an expanded hypothesis that problems in the intestines lead to problems in the brain and trigger autism.

Wakefield and the other researchers didn’t really have anything concrete. Nevertheless, a media hype was started by a PR company. Wakefield made his big appearance in 1998. A study with only 12 patients, without a control group, without any concrete evidence of intestinal diseases, let alone of a link to measles viruses from the MMR vaccination. The study was published in The Lancet, a top publication, but also a detailed rebuttal appeared. Wakefield already had grandiose dreams about diagnostic products and drugs that could be developed and marketed. A number of lawyers were preparing lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. Such attempts at lawsuits had already been made in the past.

Brian Deer, who investigated the Wakefield case, had experience with such things. He visited Margaret Best, who had received 2.75 million British pounds in damages from a vaccine manufacturer. According to her story, her son had the first of many severe seizures in 1969 after a triple DTP vaccination and was disabled afterwards. But her story was full of contradictions and Deer obtained the transcripts of the court case and found even more contradictions. The medical records showed that she allowed a second DTP vaccination after her child’s alleged vaccine reaction. The child’s doctor had no record of the seizures, which allegedly happened all the time. Best was simply lucky in court, and had good lawyers. There were other cases of damages claims where it was found that the parents or mothers lied in the USA and Britain. On the advice of the lawyers, the parents claimed that the problems had occurred within 14 days of the vaccination, although some had started earlier, others many months later.

The conflicts of interest of Wakefield and the lawyers were huge; the significance of the study with 12 children, on the other hand, was almost nil. The Royal Free Hospital became a machine to search for evidence for the hypothesis. The lawyers didn’t have a good chance of winning a lawsuit, but at least you could collect fees paid by the taxpayer.

Japanese and American researchers tried similar intestinal studies to Wakefield, but found nothing. The Japanese even had ultra-sensitive PCR technology to detect measles in intestinal tissue. But to no avail. Wakefield said he had found measles viruses with just a microscope (!) and antigen tests. Even one of the researchers alongside or under Wakefield contradicted Wakefield.

Wakefield apparently liked data that supported his hypothesis and rejected what contradicted it. At a meeting with many high-ranking scientists, someone said that Wakefield had not used the recommended four negative control methods when using antibodies. Only one control method was found in Wakefield’s study. Then came the tricky question: Where did you get the children from? Selection bias? It was even worse: They were children of parents who wanted to sue, and Wakefield was supposed to provide the appropriate evidence.

Four major newspapers and TV stations initially reported positively and regularly about Wakefield. 1800 families had contacted the lawyers. A luminary from the Royal Society with a knighthood became Wakefield’s new boss and wanted to get rid of him. There was even an offer to finance a detailed gold standard study that would either confirm or reject Wakefield’s thesis. Wakefield did not take up the offer because he wanted to work under his own ideas and with his own control methods. He submitted thin papers according to which measles viruses had allegedly been detected in intestinal tissue. Many researchers suspected, with good reason, that the samples had been contaminated and were unable to replicate the results themselves.

With a severance package, he disappeared to the USA, portrayed himself as the victim of a conspiracy and the large-scale lawsuits planned failed. The lawyers became rich and the most important of them then founded a homeopathy organization.

A rich New York hedge fund guy (graduated from elite universities, trained with Lazard bankers and fan of homeopathy) gave $3 million to Wakefield for the film Vaxxed and lawsuits against Brian Deer and the British Medical Journal. There were no really new, reliable findings about MMR and its connections to intestinal diseases or autism.

Deer’s book is really worthwhile. If he had believed that Wakefield was a hero and the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine were the villains, this would certainly have been reflected in his reporting and in the book.

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