Statement on Behalf of the BMJ and Brian Deer

January 7, 2012

Although not formally served with the legal papers, the BMJ is on notice that Andrew Wakefield has issued defamation proceedings, not in London as might be ordinarily expected as concerns a predominately English publication, but in Texas, USA, where he now lives. The proceedings primarily relate to an article written by Brian Deer and published a year ago on 5 January 2011, entitled Secrets of the MMR Scare: How the Case Against the MMR Vaccine was Fixed, and an accompanying editorial which related to Mr Wakefield’s now infamous Lancet Paper on MMR.

Of course, following the findings of the British General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practice Panel and Mr Wakefield’s history of pursuing unfounded litigation, any action brought against the BMJ and Mr Deer in London would have been immediately vulnerable to being struck out as an abuse of process.

Despite the findings of the GMC’s Fitness to Practice Panel and his co-authors having publicly retracted the causation interpretation put forward by the Lancet Paper, it would appear from the Claim filed at court that Mr Wakefield still stands by the accuracy of the Lancet paper and his conclusion therein, thereby compounding his previously found misconduct. While we await formal service, unsurprisingly the BMJ and Mr Deer standby the material published in the BMJ and their other statements and confirm that they have instructed lawyers to defend the claim vigorously.

Notes to Editors

1. The Lancet Paper was published on 23 February 1998 entitled “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children”. Its claims of a temporal association between MMR vaccine and autism were retracted by the authors (excluding Mr Wakefield) on 6 March 2004, following the first findings from Brian Deer’s investigation for The Sunday Times. The paper was retracted in its entirety by the Lancet on 2 February 2010, with the Lancet noting that elements of the paper “have been proven to be false” during hearings of a General Medical Council fitness to practise panel.

2. Following a 217-day investigation by the GMC’s panel, on 24 May 2010, the panel found Mr Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct. It found that Mr Wakefield “had a clear and compelling duty to ensure that the factual information contained in the [Lancet] paper was true and accurate and he failed in this duty”. The Panel also found that Mr Wakefield was intentionally dishonest and misleading in describing the patient population, and that he had been dishonest when questioned about it later. Similarly, the panel stated that “the description of the referral process was irresponsible, misleading, and in breach of [Mr] Wakefield s duty as a senior author”. The Determination also set out how Mr Wakefield compounded his misconduct by failing to correct the content of the paper. 

3. As a result of Mr Wakefield’s “persistent lack of insight” into his behaviour, the GMC determined that his name should be erased from the medical register.

4. Mr Wakefield adduced no evidence in mitigation and made no arguments or pleas in mitigation in front of the Fitness to Practice panel. He did not appeal its decision and has not attempted to replicate the Lancet paper’s findings in order to attempt to vindicate his position.  

5. At various times in the past, Mr Wakefield has brought claims and made complaints against Mr Deer, The Sunday Times, Channel Four and Twenty Twenty Productions in respect of allegations of dishonesty relating to his Lancet paper. In no case has he been successful. Indeed, in each instance the case has been dropped by Mr Wakefield. In Wakefield v Channel Four Television Corporation, Twenty Twenty Productions Ltd and Brian Deer [2005] EWHC 2410 (QB) Mr Justice Eady refused to grant a stay sought by Mr Wakefield, stating that the case would turn on fundamentally serious issues going to the heart of the Claimant s honesty and professional integrity. In refusing the stay, Eady J considered Mr Wakefield’s conduct in relation to the various proceedings he had brought. He noted that Mr Wakefield had written to a number of other organisations including: the Cambridge Evening News; Evan Harris (an MP who criticised Mr Wakefield on a radio programme); and the Department of Health (which provided a link on its website to the Channel Four Dispatches website). Mr Wakefield informed these entities in correspondence that he had issued proceedings against The Sunday Times, Mr Deer and/ or Channel Four, indicating that proceedings were ongoing. He made no mention of the stays which he had obtained, or was seeking. Eady J considered this misleading, and concluded that Mr Wakefield wished to use the existence of the libel proceedings for public relations purposes, and to deter critics, while at the same time isolating himself from the downside of such litigation, in having to answer a substantial defence of justification. The Judge believed that there was a pattern of using the existence of libel proceedings, albeit stayed, as a tool for stifling further criticism or debate.

6. On 20 December 2011, the BMJ’s solicitors, Farrer & Co, wrote to Mr Wakefield’s Texan lawyers setting out the matters referred to above, as well as other points. No response has been received.

7. Mr Wakefield’s allegations, that the MMR vaccines causes or contributes to autism, were investigated in three test cases in the United States Court of Federal Claims, heard from July 2007 and with judgments handed down on 12 February 2009. Although listed as a witness, Mr Wakefield was not called to give evidence, and his allegations were rejected. The judgments were upheld on appeal. In the lead case, Cedillo v Secretary for Health and Human Services, Special Master George Hastings said in his judgment with regard to evidence in the case: “Therefore, it is a noteworthy point that not only has that autistic enterocolitis theory not been accepted into gastroenterology textbooks, but that theory, and [Mr] Wakefield s role in its development, have been strongly criticized as constituting defective or fraudulent science.

This article was posted on January 7, 2012.