Has it really been 25 years, a whole quarter of a century?
I must admit that this is an anniversary that snuck up on me. I had been intending to write about an entirely different topic when I sat down with my laptop yesterday, but then I saw an article pop up in my Google Alerts from Katherine Fidler entitled ‘Dishonest and irresponsible’: 25 years on from Andrew Wakefield’s claims against the MMR jab, and I knew I had to acknowledge this unfortunate “anniversary” somehow,” given that yesterday was the quarter century anniversary of the press conference at which Andrew Wakefield announced the findings of his execrably bad 12 patient case series that first linked the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to “associated gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression in a group of previously normal children.” It is true, of course, that year before, the UK General Medical Council had stripped Wakefield of his license to practice medicine—he was “struck off,” a delightfully British way of putting it—with GMC concluding that “there was a biased selection of patients in The Lancet paper” and that Wakefield’s “conduct in this regard was dishonest and irresponsible.”
After that, one might think that the rigorous documentation by Brian Deer of Andrew Wakefield’s scientific fraud should have been the final nail in the coffin of Wakefield’s reputation. One would be wrong. Even after Deer, who referred to The Lancet case series as “Piltdown medicine” ultimately documented Wakefield’s fraud and how the study had been “fixed,” if you will, unfortunately that was 13 years after the study’s publication and the damage had already been done. From 2011 until the emergence of a novel coronavirus nine years later, to antivaxxers Wakefield was the pre-eminent “brave maverick doctor”; that is, until a new generation of grifters forged in the chaos of a deadly global pandemic arose.
An anniversary of misinformation that will live in scientific infamy
The new generation of antivaxxers, quacks, and grifters that has arisen since COVID-19 spread throughout the world in 2020 is why I immediately switched topics to discuss Wakefield on this unfortunate anniversary. He arguably laid down the basics template that antivax quacks are now following and expanding upon in the age of COVID-19. Moreover, yesterday and tomorrow are days of infamy and failure that science-based physicians should never, ever let The Lancet and its Editor-in-Chief at the time, Richard Horton, forget. Unbelievably, a quarter century on, Horton is still editor of The Lancet, even though he should have been sacked no later than immediately after Brian Deer’s exposé revealed the magnitude of his failure.
Let’s take a look back at Wakefield’s original case series and industry of antivax quackery and disinformation that it spawned. Then I will discuss Wakefield’s unfortunate continuing relevance to COVID-19 antivaxxers. Right up front, I will conceded that, for reasons that I cannot understand, Wakefield failed to be as prominent among “new school” antivaxxers as he was among the “old school” before the pandemic. I rather suspect that sheer numbers could be part of the reason why, unlike some other “old school” antivaxxers—e.g., Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Stephanie Seneff, Sherri Tenpenny, Ty Bollinger, Rashid Buttar, Kelly Brogan, Joe Mercola, Erin Elizabeth, and some of the rest of the “Disinformation Dozen“—who have managed not only to remain relevant but to increase their stature through embracing COVID misinformation, compared to his stature in the antivaccine movement prepandemic, Andrew Waekfield has not been a huge presence, certainly not the towering figure of disinformation that he was for the 22 years before SARS-CoV-2 arrived who directed one of the most influential antivax movies ever, VAXXED, in 2016, had a hagiographic “documentary” made about him, and was once likened by J.B. Handley, founder of Generation Rescue, the group for which Jenny McCarthy became the figurehead for a few years back in the late aughts, to “Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ all rolled up into one.”
Even so, Wakefield hasn’t been completely supplanted. For example, Wakefield has promoted nonsense about mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “permanently altering your DNA” and has been showing up more frequently on the podcasts and social media of “new school” antivaxxers like Steve Kirsch, a tech bro who has now imbibed deeply of every COVID-19 antivax conspiracy theory in existence and then occasionally gone beyond them, even as he takes the crank love of bogus debate challenges to new and ridiculous “heights.” Moreover, as I argued in 2021, Geert Vanden Bossche’s conspiracy theory that COVID-19 vaccines will lead to “escape mutant” variants that could mean the end of humanity was clearly patterned on Wakefield’s 2019 unsupported and deceptive claim that measles variants, selected for by MMR, will lead to a sixth mass extinction.
First, though, let’s let Kathleen Fidler remind us how it all started:
Scientists aren’t always right. In fact, most will tell you they spend their days trying to prove themselves wrong. Only when they can’t – many times over – can they be close to sure.
However, in the case of former doctor Andrew Wakefield, a dangerous dose of overconfidence – coupled with undisclosed financial incentives – led to a damaging public health scare, the effects of which are still being seen in 2023.
It was 25 years ago today that a crowd of media assembled in the atrium of London’s Royal Free Hospital to hear the shocking and provocative results of a study by Wakefield and his 12 research colleagues. They said, following research into 12 children – 11 boys and one girl, there was a link between the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and a new syndrome causing both bowel disease and autism.
That a vaccination designed to protect infants from a trifecta of serious childhood diseases could lead to a lasting neurological disorder was an allegation of immense concern to parents across the country, and soon, around the world.
In the years following publication of the study in renowned medical journal The Lancet – and sustained media coverage – vaccination rates fell, as parents felt forced to choose between protecting against potentially life-threatening viruses or autism.
It was a decision no parent ever wants to make – or should have to. Especially as it wasn’t true.
To be honest, I think that Fidler is being way too generous here in referring to Andrew Wakefield as a scientist. Maybe he was at one time, but by that fateful day in February when he he began is string of appearances on multiple media outlets promoting his fear mongering about the MMR vaccine, he had long ceased to be anything resembling a scientist. Similarly, the idea that vaccines somehow caused autism was not Wakefield’s invention. As reported by Brian Deer, in fact Wakefield had accepted funding from antivax lawyers intending to sue pharmaceutical companies for “vaccine-induced autism.” As Fidler notes:
As a researcher at the Royal Free Hospital focusing on gastrointestinal disorders, Wakefield believed he had discovered a link between measles and Crohn’s disease, a chronic form of inflammatory bowel disease. That research later pivoted to asking whether measles vaccinations were also a risk factor in developing the condition.
This work brought him to the attention of a lawyer, Richard Barr, who was acting for a number of parents who believed the MMR had caused their children to develop autism. Working in tandem, the pair arranged for 12 children – from as far afield as the US – to be referred for assessment at the Royal Free as part of a study into the effects of MMR.
Each child was subjected to a number of intensive and invasive procedures – later determined by the General Medical Council to be unnecessary – including spinal taps and colonoscopies.
Worse, patients were recruited through anti-MMR campaigners, and the study was commissioned and funded for planned litigation. Indeed, a barrister named Richard Barr paid him to produce evidence that he could use in lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers for “vaccine-induced autism” even as he had developed a measles-only vaccine that he hoped could compete against the MMR:
Unknown to Mr 11, Wakefield was working on a lawsuit,7 for which he sought a bowel-brain “syndrome” as its centrepiece. Claiming an undisclosed £150 (€180, $230) an hour through a Norfolk solicitor named Richard Barr, he had been confidentially 8 put on the payroll two years before the paper was published, eventually grossing him £435,643, plus expenses.9
Curiously, however, Wakefield had already identified such a syndrome before the project which would reputedly discover it. “Children with enteritis/disintegrative disorder [an expression he used for bowel inflammation and regressive autism10] form part of a new syndrome,” he and Barr explained in a confidential grant application to the UK government’s Legal Aid Board11 before any of the children were investigated.12 “Nonetheless the evidence is undeniably in favour of a specific vaccine induced pathology.”
The two men also aimed to show a sudden-onset “temporal association”—strong evidence in product liability. “Dr Wakefield feels that if we can show a clear time link between the vaccination and onset of symptoms,” Barr told the legal board, “we should be able to dispose of the suggestion that it’s simply a chance encounter.”13
The rest of Deer’s exposé reported how Wakefield had manipulated the data and the parents’ reports to produce a more convincing temporal association between the 12 subjects’ initial symptoms, particularly given that some of them had had evidence of symptoms before they received the MMR. (You can read Deer’s report for the details.) I like to remember one thing, too, when reading this assertion by Brian Deer:
Drawing on interviews, documents, and properly obtained data, collected during seven years of inquiries, we show how one man, former gastroenterology researcher Andrew Wakefield, was able to manufacture the appearance of a purported medical syndrome, whilst not only in receipt of large sums of money, but also scheming businesses that promised him more. His was a fraud, moreover, of more than academic vanity. It unleashed fear, parental guilt, costly government intervention, and outbreaks of infectious disease.
Remember, this was published in The BMJ, which is published the UK, a nation with very plaintiff-friendly libel laws. You can bet that it was all extensively documented and vetted by The BMJ‘s lawyers before publication. As an aside, seeing The BMJ‘s bravery in publishing this 12 years ago compared to The BMJ‘s embrace of COVID-19 disinformation-spreaders like Paul Thacker and its now longtime senior editor Peter Doshi depresses me, leading me to ask, “WTF happened?” Let’s just say that The BMJ has gone way downhill over the last 12 years.
The BMJ‘s decline aside, it didn’t take long for the fear that MMR causes autism to cause MMR uptake in the UK and Europe to plummet, with the return of massive measles outbreaks. Fortunately, the MMR fear mongering didn’t have quite as marked an effect in the US, although over here fear mongering based on the false hypothesis that mercury in the thimerosal preservative used in childhood vaccines until around 2001 was a major cause of autism.
In any event, after his being struck off in 2010 and Deer’s documentation of the fraud at the heart of his Lancet case series, Wakefield went the only route that he could and became even more of an antivax campaigner and conspiracy theorist. For example, in 2014 he popularized the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory claiming that the CDC had “hidden” evidence that MMR caused autism. Two years later, the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory became the basis of the antivax documentary VAXXED that he made with Del Bigtree. On can obviously see the parallels in the age of COVID-19, with COVID-19 and antivax propaganda movies having come fast and furious, beginning with Plandemic in 2020 and continuing to movies like Died Suddenly. Meanwhile, Wakefield had movies made about him like The Pathological Optimist, which basically portrayed him as the brave maverick doctor who stuck to his guns in face of criticism and sanctions by the medical community.
Wakefield pioneered much the template used by COVID quacks
As 2022 dawned, I noted how everything old is new again and there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to COVID-19 quackery and antivax quackery. Of course, if you consider only the details of the claims made by quacks and antivaxxers about COVID-19, that’s not entirely true, but if you look at the broader narratives of antivaxxers it most certainly is. Basically, every antivax narrative about COVID-19 fits into the common antivax narrative themes that existed before the pandemic, and Andrew Wakefield helped amplify nearly all of them. This is all the more impressive given that in 1998 social media didn’t exist and the Internet, in particular the World Wide Web, was still in its infancy and Wakefield relied primarily on old media, in particular the UK tabloid press, to spread his message.
Another part of the antivax template that you have to have to be an effective quack is an “alternative” to current vaccinations. You might recall that at first Wakefield had his own separate measles vaccine and mostly only demonized the combined MMR vaccine. You might also recall that, like any good quack, Wakefield had a dubious component in that vaccine, which he tried to patent. Specifically, Wakefield was going to use something called transfer factor in his new vaccine to “boost immunity.” Basically, transfer factor is pure quackery thought up by Hugh Fudenberg. For those of you who haven’t heard of him before, the late Hugh Fudenberg was a collaborator and co-inventor with Andrew Wakefield. Dr. Fudenberg also happens to have been involved in some very dubious “treatments” for autism that led to some problems with his medical license.
Does any of this sound familiar? Let’s take a look. In the early aughts, Wakefield left the UK and moved to Texas, where in 2005 he co-founded Thoughtful House Center for Children, which was a quack clinic in which he served as Medical Director and, although he didn’t treat patients himself, developed “protocols” to treat autism and “autistic enterocolitis” based on the concept that they were caused by MMR vaccine “injury.” There, an American gastroenterologist Dr. Arthur Krigsman did what Andrew Wakefield could not do because he did not have a Texas medical license, namely treating children with autism with quackery for “gut issues” and performing colonoscopies. Interestingly, after Brian Deer’s reporting on Wakefield’s fraud, Wakefield and Krigsman both left Thoughtful House, Wakefield not voluntarily, Krigsman, well, it’s not so certain. In any event Thoughtful House was a quack clinic in which Krigsman treated autistic children with “autism biomed” with Wakefield’s “guidance” (given that he couldn’t legally provide direct medical treatment to anyone) based on the idea that MMR vaccine and other vaccines cause autism and “autistic enterocolitis.”
Wakefield’s fingerprints are all over the current crop COVID-19 quacks. Just take a look at, for example, American’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), none of whom were ever really frontline, but all of whom were into the selling of all manner of quackery, including an ivermectin telehealth prescription mill and then later degenerated into legal wrangling between quacks and grifters over control of the organization. Then there’s arguably the most famous group of COVID-19 quacks, Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC). I haven’t written much about FLCCC here, although I’ve discussed this group much more elsewhere. Basically, FLCCC is a group of quacks co-founded by Dr. Pierre Kory promote ivermectin, although the FLCCC promotes more than just ivermectin. For instance, FLCCC promotes protocols such as the I-MASS protocol, touted as an “in-home” treatment protocol for COVID-19 that involves vitamin D3, melatonin, aspirin, a multivitamin, a thermometer, and an antiseptic mouthwash. Another FLCCC protocol is I-MASK+, which is promoted as an outpatient treatment protocol and involves ivermectin, zinc, melatonin, various vitamins, and fluvoxamine. The FLCCC’s most “advanced” protocol is MATH+, a hospital treatment protocol that involves—of course!—ivermectin, plus zinc, fluvoxamine, and a bunch of other vitamins and supplements, along with steroids and anticoagulants. None of these protocols has anything resembling solid evidence from randomized clinical trials to support it. Reading through these protocols, I get very much a Wakefieldian autism biomed vibe, as FLCCC throws everything but the kitchen sink at COVID-19.
Like Wakefield and other autism biomed quacks who sought to cure autism by “detoxing” vaccine injury, FLCCC also has a protocol to treat “postvaccine syndrome,” because of course it does. It even includes a lot of old school antivax “treatments” for autism and “vaccine injury”:
First Line Therapies
(Not symptom specific; listed in order of importance)
- Intermittent daily fasting or periodic daily fasts
- Moderating physical activity
- Low-dose naltrexone
- Methylene blue
- Sunlight and Photobiomodulation
(Listed in order of importance)
- Vitamin D (with Vitamin K2)
- N-acetyl cysteine
- Cardio Miracle™ and L-arginine/L-citrulline supplements
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Sildenafil (with or without L-arginine- L-citrulline)
- Nigella sativa
- Vitamin C
- Non-invasive brain stimulation
- Intravenous Vitamin C
- Behavioral modification, relaxation therapy, mindfulness therapy, and psychological support
Third Line Therapies
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy
- Low Magnitude Mechanical Stimulation
- “Mitochondrial energy optimizer”
- Low-dose corticosteroid
Intravenous vitamin C? Vitamin D? “Mitochondrial energy optimizer”? Hyperbaric oxygen? Regulars probably remember all of these showing up in autism biomed quackery at one time or another. Similar to other autism quacks, FLCCC has of late branched out and billed its quackery as able to treat other conditions.
Wakefield also pioneered the use of patients who thought they had been injured by vaccines (or, in the case of autistic children, their parents) as weapons against attempts to hold him accountable. We saw it at his GMC hearings. We saw it in the reaction of his followers and fans. However, this was not unique to Wakefield, of course. Stanislaw Burzynski had been doing this since the early 1990s. He also perfected the art of playing the persecuted genius, suffering because he is supposedly so brilliant and far ahead of his peers.
Even so, if I had to think of one thing that Wakefield “pioneered” that we’ve seen more than anything else during the pandemic, it’s the weaponization of bad scientific studies. None of what I mentioned above, the quackery, the grift, the self-portrayal as the persecuted genius, the use of the media of the time to promote his quackery, was truly unique. However, his Lancet case series was truly the original template that antivaxxers quickly imitated to churn out bad study after bad study over the years to demonize vaccines and tout their quackery, occasionally, like Wakefield, managing to publish in a highly reputable journal. In the age of the pandemic, arguably more quacks than ever are publishing more papers than ever in an attempt to produce the next one with Wakefield-level influence to grift on.
Indeed, one thing that did not surprise me about the pandemic is just how many “old school” antivaxxers quickly pivoted to become COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and then, when COVID-19 vaccines arrived, COVID-19 antivaxxers. Many of them profited more than ever before. (Joe Mercola, Del Bigtree, and RFK Jr. immediately come to mind.) What did surprise me is that Wakefield was not one of them. Sure, he did seem to try, but it didn’t seem to resonate the way that his fear mongering about MMR vaccines and autism did. I can only speculate that perhaps this is because 25 years ago Wakefield was indeed a “pioneer” of antivaccine fear mongering and quackery, as well as of using the scientific literature to promote pseudoscience and misinformation. Now, he is just one of many, some of whom have far surpassed him. I also suspect that his arrogance got in the way and that he couldn’t conceive of not being able to garner attention easily. Moreover, his idea about MMR resulting in ever more deadly variants of measles was clearly a major inspiration of the many antivax variants claiming that COVID-19 vaccines will cause ever more virulent COVID variants.
Whatever the reason for the disconnect, there is no doubt that Wakefield was trailblazer in the antivaccine world. Unfortunately, that means he is a pioneer in causing unnecessary death on a mass scale.