Are vaccines safe? What about that possible connection between the MMR vaccine and autism – no smoke without fire, right? You need to know this: that particular fire was lit by the very man who claimed he was trying to put it out. There never was a plausible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The doctor who investigated it, Andrew Wakefield, did not think so either. But he earned himself a fortune by acting as if he did.

The full truth only emerged nine years later because Wakefield sued Brian Deer, the Sunday Times Journalist who exposed him and the author of this book, for libel. This led to the disclosure to the court, and to the defence, of the medical files of the child patients on whom Wakefield had based his infamous claims. Only then did Deer discover that some of the children – remember, there were only twelve – were not autistic, while others had received their MMR vaccination after the onset of their behavioural difficulties. Not very convincing, is it?

By the time the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead found the courage and the process by which they could dismiss Wakefield, he’d mobilised a conspiracy machine that meant that no matter what the establishment said, it could all be dismissed as an attempt to conceal the truth. This is why this book matters.

We all know Wakefield’s small-scale study was discredited, his published paper in The Lancet eventually withdrawn, the man himself struck off the medical register in the UK. But this remarkable book shows the extraordinary extent of his deception. I thought the problem was that the study was poorly constructed, too small and anecdotal to be reliable. While this is true, the real scandal is much simpler and more shocking than that. Wakefield was recruited by a lawyer and together they claimed millions of pounds of legal aid payments for themselves (Wakefield’s share was just under half a million), on the pretext that they were investigating this possible problem. In reality, they had rather less altruistic goals. The lawyer wanted to find a basis on which to sue vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield wanted fame and fortune for some, any, breakthrough medical discovery, and switched his focus and claims several times along the way in pursuit of his goal. Both claimed plenty of cash in the process.

Then they actively recruited children to “study”, concealed or changed aspects of these children’s medical history that didn’t fit, and conjured up other “facts” that did. Data that undermined his hypothesis were ignored, while the hypothesis itself morphed from “measles virus causes Crohn’s disease” to “the MMR vaccine causes regressive autism”, despite no evidence. Wakefield also registered patents for a range of related tests and treatments that all depended on his work being true. These included: a lab test for the presence of the offending measles virus; some sort of as-yet-undefined miracle drug that would treat the afflicted children; and of course single-dose measles vaccines for which his work might generate demand. Conflict of interest? I’ll say.

Equally shocking is how many other clinicians went along with Wakefield’s project. He was not a paediatrician or gastroenterologist or anything relevant at all. He was not even practising as a medical doctor treating patients – he had a lab job. He recruited others to do the hands-on work. In some cases, distressed children were held down and given painful investigative procedures like spinal taps. These were not necessary, but they were chargeable.

Where is Wakefield now? In the USA, where the grift continues. He was a guest at Trump’s 2017 inauguration party in Washington DC. No longer talking about MMR and autism, he now claims all vaccines are dangerous. Why bother with a small claim when people are so willing to believe you that they aren’t interested in details? Measles cases, including permanent harm and occasionally death, are on the rise in the USA and elsewhere. The real danger isn’t vaccines, it’s this ex-doctor.

Books | January 2021