Thursday, August 28, 2014

CDC Whistleblower William Thompson Breaks Silence

Things have certainly been progressing quickly in wooville, specifically in the anti-vaccine neighborhood. Earlier this month, anti-vaccine activist and petitioner in the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, Brian S. Hooker, PhD, published a study in the journal Translational Neurodegeneration titled Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young african american boys: a reanalysis of CDC data. [Update (10/4/14): Hooker's study has been fully retracted by the journal.] Basically, Hooker took a dataset that was used by CDC researchers DeStefano et al. in their 2004 study looking at whether on-time, slightly late or late MMR vaccination was more common among autism cases than among controls. It was a case-control study that looked at both a large population, as well as a smaller population limited to those who had a Georgia birth certificate. After receiving word from a whistleblower that the DeStefano study found an association among African American males, but did not include that in the finished report, Hooker waded in to find the holy grail of government malfeasance and cover-up. Except, he did not use the same methods to examine the data that the CDC did. Using a dataset designed for a case-control study, he conducted a cohort study, applied statistics inappropriately and reached a spurious conclusion.

Although it made a splash among the conspiracy-minded, it didn't garner much attention right away. Science bloggers held off putting up any immediate posts, opting instead to examine the study to see if Hooker's methods were sound, particularly since his conclusion had no plausible biological basis. In the interim, the British doctor who engaged in research fraud and was stripped of his medical license, Andrew Jeremy Wakefield, put together a video in which he exploited the victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in a cynical attempt at using the race card to drum up outrage at the CDC. At the same time, he said the CDC was actually worse than Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. Wakefield also included in his video carefully edited snippets of audio recordings that, presumably, are the whistleblower. He released two versions of that video, one with the whistleblower's name bleeped out and his voice distorted, and one where the audio is unobscured and his name, William Thompson, is plainly stated. Interestingly, anti-vaccine blogger Jake Crosby condemned Wakefield for outing Thompson without Thompson's permission, an allegation that Wakefield strongly denied.

Early this week, science bloggers began posting their analyses of Hooker's study, noting the flaws and questioning the validity of its conclusions. They also pointed out that not one anti-vaccine activist called out Andrew Wakefield for race-baiting, but instead praised and shared his video, the implication of which is that one of the original DeStefano authors was a race traitor.

On Tuesday evening, the Wakefield/Hooker sycophants threw a collective tantrum on Twitter, whining about how no one takes them seriously.

That brings us to the momentous events of Wednesday.

First, on Wednesday morning, the journal Translational Neurodegeneration pulled Hooker's study from their web site, putting up the following message:
This article has been removed from the public domain pending further investigation because the journal and publisher believe that its continued availability could cause public harm. Definitive editorial action will be taken once our investigation is complete.
The message was replaced before too long with an updated statement:
This article has been removed from the public domain because of serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions. The journal and publisher believe that its continued availability may not be in the public interest. Definitive editorial action will be pending further investigation.
[UPDATE (9-2-14): The journal has now added a Statement of Concern about Hooker's article, stating:
The Publisher of this article [1] has serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions because of possible undeclared competing interests of the author and peer reviewers. The matter is undergoing investigation. In the meantime, readers are advised to treat the reported conclusions of this study with caution.

Further action will be taken, if appropriate, once our investigation is complete.]
It seems that the journal's editors got wind of some of the potential flaws in Hooker's paper and decided to take a closer look. It's rather impressive how quickly the journal moved, considering it took the Lancet over a year to retract Wakefield's fraudulent 1998 paper. It remains to be seen whether Translational Neurodegeneration will reinstate the paper or retract it, either in part or fully. The irony is that, if the anti-vaccine community had never made such a stink about it, the journal might never have decided to take a closer look.

Then came perhaps the biggest development, at least as concerns the manufactroversy of the whistleblower, alleged malfeasance by the CDC, and the actions of Hooker and Wakefield. William Thompson released a statement through his lawyer:



My name is William Thompson. I am a Senior Scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where I have worked since 1998.

I regret that my coauthors and I omitted statistically significant information in our 2004 article published in the journal Pediatrics. The omitted data suggested that African American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at increased risk for autism. Decisions were made regarding which findings to report after the data were collected, and I believe that the final study protocol was not followed.

I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.

My concern has been the decision to omit relevant findings in a particular study for a particular sub­ group for a particular vaccine. There have always been recognized risks for vaccination and I believe it is the responsibility of the CDC to properly convey the risks associated with receipt of those vaccines.

I have had many discussions with Dr. Brian Hooker over the last 10 months regarding studies the CDC has carried out regarding vaccines and neurodevelopmental outcomes including autism spectrum disorders. I share his belief that CDC decision-making and analyses should be transparent. I was not, however, aware that he was recording any of our conversations, nor was I given any choice regarding whether my name would be made public or my voice would be put on the Internet.

I am grateful for the many supportive e-mails that I have received over the last several days. I will not be answering further questions at this time. I am providing information to Congressman William Posey, and of course will continue to cooperate with Congress. I have also offered to assist with reanalysis of the study data or development of further studies. For the time being, however, I am focused on my job and my family.

Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information. I will do everything I can to assist any unbiased and objective scientists inside or outside the CDC to analyze data collected by the CDC or other public organizations for the purpose of understanding whether vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism. There are still more questions than answers, and I appreciate that so many families are looking for answers from the scientific community.

My colleagues and supervisors at the CDC have been entirely professional since this matter became public. In fact, I received a performance-based award after this story came out. I have experienced no pressure or retaliation and certainly was not escorted from the building, as some have stated.

Dr. Thompson is represented by Frederick M. Morgan,Jr., Morgan Verkamp, LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio,
Up until this point, we only had Hooker's and Wakefield's word on what Thompson had said and done, and that was completely out of context, doled out in dribs and drabs. Reasonable people were left with only speculation about Thompson's deeds, motives, etc. Even the CDC had nothing to say regarding Thompson, in large part due to the fact that he had claimed whistleblower status, meaning that CDC could not retaliate against Thompson for what he may have said or done. They likely took the view that anything they said held the potential to be viewed as a negative/retaliatory action, and thus in violation of the law; they took the prudent course of commenting only on the 2004 DeStefano study.

Dr. Thompson's statement has several interesting details in it that are rather damaging to Hooker, Wakefield and those holding up Hooker's results as valid.

First, it is clear that Thompson's concerns were over the conduct of the study. If what he says is true, the decision to exclude data from the published paper allegedly went against the study protocol. Deviations from protocol can be serious matters. They have to be reported to the IRB overseeing the study. Whether they significantly alter the conclusions is an entirely different matter. In the published paper, DeStefano et al. state the reasons for their handling of the data and explain what they think may have been behind the observation of an increased odds that African American males with autism were more likely to have been vaccinated between 25 and 36 months. The anomaly was intriguing and, at the time, warranted a closer examination to figure out what was going on. Other studies since then have shown that the finding was probably due to other confounding variables. However, the data were included in the paper; it is just the conclusions drawn from that data that were excluded. That doesn't appear to be a protocol violation. Decisions about what to include and what to exclude in a published paper happen all the time, in large part due to space limitations, but also due to the quality of the findings. Thompson seems to have felt that the findings warranted inclusion in the published paper, but he may go too far by claiming it was "against protocol". He may be right, but I'd need to see the study protocol for that.

Next, Thompson says what essentially condemns him in the eyes of those who, until this statement was released, were praising him for his courage and thanking him for coming forward. He unequivocally supports vaccination and "would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children". The benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks. Cue the claims that he is a coward and was bought out by Big PharmaTM. These points suggest that Hooker, Wakefield and company have misrepresented Thompson's position and motives. But the most damning part of the statement is what comes next.

Remember that Wakefield's video included snippets of recorded conversation between Thompson and Hooker. Recall, also, that Wakefield claimed he had permission to identify Thompson. And yet, here we find that the conversations were very probably recorded illegally, broadcast illegally, and that Wakefield did not, in fact, have permission to "out" Thompson.

Different states have different laws regarding the recording of conversations between private individuals. For this discussion, the pertinent states to look at are Georgia (for Thompson) and California (where Hooker resides). Georgia's wiretapping law (O.C.G.A. § 16-11-62 - navigate from there to find the statute) states that is is unlawful to record a private conversation "without the consent of all persons observed". Violation is a felony offense punishable by 1 to 5 years imprisonment, a $10,000 fine, or both. [Edit to add (8-30-14): It was pointed out to me that O.C.G.A. § 16-11-66(a) allows a person to record a conversation if that person is a party to it. When I wrote this post originally, it was unclear if that applied only to conversations involving minors, given § 16-11-66(b), or to all. Perhaps a lawyer can clarify this for me. However, even if Hooker is in the clear as far as recording the conversations, Georgia law prohibits divulging those recordings unless all parties consent. Hooker could still be in a bit of a sticky situation on that count, since he divulged the recording to Wakefield apparently without Thompson's consent. The Reporters Committee's Reporter's Recording Guide interprets the relevant statutes.] California similarly requires consent from all parties to a confidential conversation (California Penal Code § 632), violation of which is punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail for the first offense. If Thompson's statement is correct, that he was not aware he was being recorded, then Hooker could find himself in a bit of legal trouble.

Both of those statutes also prohibit the transmission or distribution of those recordings without the consent of everyone involved in the recorded conversation. This puts Andrew Wakefield in a pickle, as well. [Edited to Add: Texas, where Andrew Wakefield lives, is a one-party consent state, so he might be in the clear. If so, then he basically screwed Hooker by revealing that the conversation was recorded.] Again, if what Thompson says is true, Wakefield not only lied about obtaining permission, but divulged confidential recordings without proper consent. Whether or not Wakefield or Hooker committed a possible felony is up to the legal system to decide, should Thompson pursue such a case against them.

Thompson's statement certainly casts Wakefield/Hooker in a not all that surprising light. At the very least, it calls into question their claims and behavior. But it does not exonerate Thompson, either. Despite his claims that he supports vaccination and that he would not suggest parents avoid immunizing their children, Thompson's actions were incredibly irresponsible. He ought to have known that Brian Hooker is far from an "unbiased and objective scientist" (he is, again, a petitioner in the Vaccine Court and is ideologically driven to prove that vaccines cause autism), let alone someone who has the necessary qualifications to responsibly analyze the data. His actions may very well lead to reduction in vaccine uptake, increases in preventable diseases, and harm to the children he seeks to protect. Certainly, they do not help the greater autism community (i.e., not the small fringe that blames just about everything under the sun on vaccines).

William Thompson has placed himself in a rather unenviable position. He has damaged his own career by confiding in and working with Brian Hooker. He has indelibly attached his reputation to a bunch of kooks and hacks. They played him and took advantage of him, but it was fully within his power to avoid. But he is unlikely, now, to find any warm home among the anti-vaccine movement. He will be labeled a coward, a traitor, a shill for Big PharmaTM. And worse, should people stop immunizing their children as a result of this entire to-do, a sizable portion of the blame can be laid at Dr. Thompson's feet.
[Edited to Add (Aug. 28, 2014): Here is a timeline through about 1pm today, courtesy of Liz Ditz (thanks for the amazing work on this, Liz!).]

Posts discussing Hooker's allegations, excluding anti-vaccine sources

Posts discussing Hooker's allegations from anti-vaccine sources

Other links

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