The MMR autism scare went on for so long because of a series of denials and a failure to properly look into Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s misconduct allegations regarding his 1998 Lancet paper, writes Dr. Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief, BMJ (Brtitish Medical Journal). This third and final part of a special BMJ series “Secrets of the MMR Scare” urges the British government to “establish mandatory oversight of clinical research integrity within the NHS, as happens for publicly funded research in the USA.”

The three parts of this BMJ series were written by respected investigative journalist Brian Deer. He writes that the medical establishment closed ranks to protect their fellow health care professional – Dr. Wakefield – after Deer raised concerns in 2005 regarding the Lancet paper.

Wakefield’s research is ridden with likely research fraud, conflicts of interest through an involvement with a lawsuit against vaccine makers, and unethical treatment of susceptible children, Deer alleges.

Richard Horton, editor, rather than order an investigation at the time, which Deer had expected him to do “within 48 hours, and working with the paper’s three senior authors, the journal was to publish 5000 words of denials, in statements, unretracted to this day.”

The statement informed that Dr. Wakefield was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Royal Free Hospital.

However, no formal investigation actually took place, Deer wrote after checking emails, replies and documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The Royal Free Hospital today admits this – there was no formal investigation; no documents were generated and no doctors were interviewed.

Deer wrote:

“What emerges is merely a scramble to discredit my claims during the 48 hours after I disclosed the information . . . . the accused were investigating themselves.”

Deer’s allegations were not proven to be true by the GMC (General Medical Council) for another six years – a six-year delay before the Lancet paper was retracted. A long time for parents of children with autism spectrum disorders to be tormented with guilt because their kids had had the MMR shot, and a rise in measles outbreaks because people were afraid of vaccinations. The paper informs that two children died from measles.

Deer argues:

“Were it not for the GMC case, which cost a rumoured £6m (€7m; $9m), the fraud by which Wakefield concocted fear of MMR would forever have been denied and covered up.”

Professor Sir John Tooke, Vice-Provost at University College London, wrote in response to the BMJ last week:

“UCL takes any allegation of research misconduct very seriously, and we will certainly investigate those raised in the BMJ. This process will be subject to external scrutiny, in line with our procedures in this area.” He added: “We are determined to learn from the mistakes made in relation to this case … Our objective is to continue refining a structure and processes which provide all reasonable safeguards whilst also facilitating the highest quality research for population benefit.”

Dr. Godlee said:

“This case reveals major flaws in pre and post-publication peer review. Allegations of research misconduct must be independently investigated in the public interest. But it’s still too easy for institutions to avoid external scrutiny, and editors can fail to adequately distance themselves from work they have published and then defended.”

Scientists in Seattle, USA, write in an Accompanying Editorial:

“(there is an urgent need) to fix a system that failed to protect human subjects and the public from the consequences of fraudulent science.”

“Secrets of the MMR scare – The Lancet’s two days to bury bad news”
Brian Deer
BMJ 2011; 342:c7001

Written by Christian Nordqvist