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"So serious" MMR allegations could have "blown apart" the Royal Free hospital

This page is research from an award-winning investigation, concluding in 2011, by Brian Deer for The Sunday Times of London into a campaign linking the MMR children's vaccine with autism based on fraudulent research by British former doctor Andrew Wakefield

As the revelations over the MMR research blazed through the week following publication of Brian Deer's Sunday Times investigation, The Independent reported on February 24 what it thought were events behind the scenes



Ministers temper their triumphalism but delight spreads at Whitehall

By Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor

The latest extraordinary twist in the MMR story has been like manna from heaven for two of the main players in the drama. At the Department of Health, which has striven for the past six years to bolster public confidence in the vaccine, joy is unconfined at the discrediting of Andrew Wakefield, as the researcher responsible for the scare. While ministers and officials have been careful to curb their delight, even the Prime Minister could not resist issuing a homily on the need to protect children in response to questions from reporters yesterday."I hope now that people see that the situation is somewhat different to what they were led to believe, [and] they will have the triple jab," he said.

John Reid, the health secretary, has so far resisted calls for an independent inquiry preferring to leave that to the independent General Medical Council (GMC). Ministers are keen to avoid triumphalism in such an emotive area. For The Lancet, too, the revelation has provided an opportunity to distance itself from one of the most heavily-criticised papers it has published. Richard Horton, the editor, declared the paper "fatally flawed" after Dr Wakefield confirmed his conflict of interest, and said that the part of it which linked MMR vaccine with bowel disease and autism would never have been published had Dr Wakefield declared his conflict of interest at the time.

For Dr Wakefield, however, the disclosure of his undeclared link with the legal aid board is damaging, even though he maintained at the weekend that it made no difference to his findings. The events that led to his exposure began to take shape last Wednesday at the offices of Bell Pottinger, the top London PR firm, which represents him. Dr Wakefield, who left the Royal Free hospital in 2001, now works in the US but frequently crosses the Atlantic to give lectures on his continuing research into the link between MMR, bowel disease and autism. A meeting had been called at Bell Pottinger's Mayfair offices at the request of The Sunday Times. The newspaper had conducted a four-month investigation into Dr Wakefield's original 1998 paper, published in The Lancet, which sparked the global scare about MMR.

The Sunday Times had some explosive allegations to make and, according to Brian Deer, its brilliant but mercurial investigating reporter, Dr Wakefield was "red-eyed and tense" as they were put to him. It was alleged that he and his co-researchers had failed to gain ethical approval for their study, had failed to obtain consent for invasive investigations of the 12 children and that the selection of the children had been biased and did not reflect a true random sample.

It was also alleged that Dr Wakefield had, unknown to his co-researchers, been paid by the Legal Aid Board to investigate the possibility of bringing a case against the vaccine manufacturers and some of the children involved were also included in The Lancet study.It was that last allegation which was to prove the most damaging. Meanwhile, at a separate meeting at The Lancet, The Sunday Times presented the same allegations to shocked editors. One of those present said they were so serious they could have "blown apart The Royal Free".

The Lancet immediately began its own investigation, presenting the allegations to The Royal Free and Dr Wakefield's co-authors. It issued a statement at 5.36pm on Friday setting out its findings. Its decision to go public infuriated The Sunday Times which believed it had an agreement with The Lancet to protect its scoop. But Dr Horton, insisted that the allegations were so grave that he could not allow publication to go ahead without making a pre-emptive attempt to correct the errors.

The Lancet statement dismissed the allegations about ethical approval and consent and also rejected the allegation about bias in the selection of the children. But it accepted that Dr Wakefield's links with the Legal Aid Board represented a serious conflict of interest which, had it been declared, would have prevented publication of the alleged link and might have averted the subsequent scare.

Read the Royal Free ethics committee papers



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