BMJ On The Hot Seat

Dr Andrew Wakefield MB, BS, FRCS filed suit against the British Medical Journal, BMJ chief editor Fiona Godlee and BMJ author Brian Deer on Jan 3, 2012 in Travis County, Texas. The complaint is that the defendants authored, edited and approved articles and made statements which “contained false and defamatory allegations”. It deals specifically with issues concerning the small but highly contentious 1998 Lancet case study which showed a temporal association between children’s bowel problems, their vaccinations with MMR vaccine, and developmental regression.

In support of Dr Wakefield’s complaint, David Lewis, PhD has submitted a fully documented report to the Chair of the UK Research Integrity Office, the Chair and the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and the Vice-Provost of University College, London. He contends that the defendants named in Wakefield’s complaint have also committed misdemeanors against him, certain other health professionals and health and academic institutions. Last year, Lewis provided the BMJ with evidence refuting their criticisms of Wakefield’s 1998 study and allegations that Wakefield had deliberately misdiagnosed the intestinal complaints of children included in that study. Referring to Godlee and Deer, he writes, “Instead of admitting she had falsely accused Wakefield of making up the diagnosis of colitis, she and Deer simply cherry-picked the evidence to come up with a new theory involving “institutional research misconduct. The alleged fraudsters now include University College London administrators, the Royal Free Hospital, and all 13 authors of the Lancet study.”

The “evidence” which Deer had used to allege incorrect diagnosis came from disease grading sheets authored by pathologists Paul Dhillon and Andrew Anthony, not directly from Wakefield. In fact these sheets repeatedly included the terms “colitis” and “UC”, an abbreviation for ulcerative colitis. Concerning the validity of the pathologists’ diagnosis, Lewis favours a key Power Point presentation he’d included in one of his letters to the BMJ: “In this well-illustrated presentation, which Godlee chose not to publish, Anthony carefully explains the basis he used to interpret the architectural features described in Table 1 of the Lancet article as colitis.”

Unfortunately for Godlee, the University College London (UCL) holds copyrights on the grading sheets – she’d wanted to publish them in the BMJ, but UCL had refused permission. Not to be deterred, she’d asked Lewis to post them on the website of the (US) National Whistleblowers Center (NWC), an organization in which Lewis is Director of the ‘Research Misconduct Project’. Godlee had encouraged, “The advice from our lawyers is that the risk of any challenge from UCL in relation to publication of the grading sheets is infinitesimally small…UCL wants nothing to do with this and would not, in my view, seek the adverse publicity that would follow if they were to take legal action.” In her email to Lewis she said she would reconsider publishing the sheets in the BMJ if Lewis refused but implied she would not because, “we are launching our new website on the day of publication and I have promised my staff not to do anything complicated on that day.” Complicated indeed!

Lewis notes that Godlee had been extremely officious in shortening, rewording and completely disallowing his letters intended for publication in the BMJ. At one point she’d even written a quote she attributed to Lewis: “I am not qualified in medicine or histopathology.” And because their contents were akin to what one would expect from a medical writer, not a media writer, he wonders if, in fact, it was someone other than Deer who actually wrote the BMJ articles attributed to him – was Godlee a ghostwriter for Deer?

Godlee’s alleged forged quote would be laughable if it weren’t so shockingly unethical. Dr Lewis is a former senior-level research microbiologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whose many accomplishments in medical and environmental research have been widely covered in professional, scientific and popular publications and broadcasts including the journals, Nature, Science, Lancet, and JAMA. He lost his job at the EPA in 2003 after his research forced the EPA to abandon its policy of promoting application of sewage sludge to farm land. Now, he states, “I live almost entirely on my federal retirement pension. For the last couple of decades, I have derived additional income as an expert witness in federal and state court cases involving the collection and examination of colonic biopsy samples. This is an area in which I have extensive professional credentials.” In a 2011 BMJ article, Deer described Lewis as a “self employed American microbiologist working with Wakefield.” To prevent him from uploading his extensive evidence re the Wakefield case to the NWC’s website, Brian Deer sent them this misinformation and more about Dr Lewis’ credentials.

Dr Lewis was not “working with Wakefield”. Rather, he initiated contact with Wakefield in his capacity as Director of the Research Misconduct Project. He states, “Since January 2011, I have worked full-time investigating Dr. Wakefield’s records on a volunteer basis, with no pay….He did not solicit my help. I requested copies of his court pleadings and other documents; he did not approach me and offer up any of his documents.” The Research Misconduct Project was created by the NWC Board of Directors in December 2010 to deal with institutional research misconduct. According to the NWC website, “Increasingly, important areas of scientific research are being manipulated by government agencies, large corporations and leading universities to promote and protect their own interests. Suppressing independent research that threatens their interests is key to their success.” In May, 2011 Dr. Godlee corroborated this when she testified to the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee: “Even on the peer-reviewed side of things, it has been said that the journals are the marketing arm of the pharmaceutical industry. That is not untrue.”

It appears that, in the interests of their own continued success, the medical establishment/pharmaceutical companies have risked the health of children around the world. Astonishingly, they’ve done so in the name of health. When Dr Andrew Wakefield wins his lawsuit, the world will be a better place, not just for him and his supporters, but also for independent researchers, local general practitioners and health institutions, science, and the world’s population as a whole.