The 1998 Lancet study that implied a link between the MMR vaccine and childhood autism was “an elaborate fraud,” declares the BMJ today.
Dr Fiona Godlee, BMJ Editor in Chief say “the MMR scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud” and that such “clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare.”
She also questions the veracity of Wakefield’s other publications and calls for an investigation “to decide whether any others should be retracted.”
In 2004, ten of the study's thirteen authors signed a formal retraction, and The Lancet formally retracted the study last year.
In 2010, lead author Andrew Wakefield was found guilty of serious professional misconduct over “unethical” research and struck off after nearly three years of formal investigation by the General Medical Council. Dr Wakefield has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Starting this week, the BMJ will publish a series of three articles, which reveal the true extent of the scam behind the scare. The series is based on interviews, documents and data, collected during seven years of inquiries by investigative journalist Brian Deer.
Mr Deer likens researcher Andrew Wakefield’s fraud to Piltdown Man, the paleontological hoax that led people to believe for 40 years that the missing link between man and ape had been found.
Using the GMC’s transcript of its investigation and adjudication, the BMJ peer reviewed and checked Mr Deer’s findings and confirmed extensive falsification in The Lancet paper.
For example, he found that not one of the medical records of the 12 children reported in the 1998 study could be fully reconciled with the descriptions, diagnoses, or histories published in the paper.
In an editorial, Dr Godlee, deputy BMJ editor Jane Smith, and leading paediatrician and associate BMJ editor Harvey Marcovitch, conclude that there is “no doubt” that it was Wakefield who perpetrated this fraud.
“A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross,” they say.
Yet, he has repeatedly denied doing anything wrong at all, they add. “Instead, although now disgraced and stripped of his clinical and academic credentials, he continues to push his views. Meanwhile the damage to public health continues.”
“Science is based on trust,” concludes Dr Godlee. “Such a breach of trust is deeply shocking. And even though almost certainly rare on this scale, it raises important questions about how this could happen, what could have been done to uncover it earlier, what further inquiry is now needed, and what can be done to prevent something like this happening again.”