The National Autism Association’s Lies & Distortions About Paul Offit
On Tuesday, the National Autism Association (NAA) engaged in a bit of mudslinging so full of lies and distortions that it would be laughable, if it weren’t for the fact that so many folks—including some news institutions that ought to know better—seem willing to swallow them, no questions asked.
In a news release distributed through PR Newswire (a service that provides media services to PR and marketing professionals and organizations) NAA attempted to slime pro-vaccination spokesman Paul Offit with the same tired bag of canards that gets hauled out every time an anti-vax org wants to change the subject (i.e., that science has consistently and repeatedly failed to find a causal link between vaccination and autism.)
In its own ham-fisted way, the NAA is trying to accomplish two dubious feats for the price of one: damage control from the recent Dateline NBC piece that examined Andrew Wakefield’s role in igniting the MMR “controversy”; and ensuring media pick-up of their smear job by (misleadingly) tying it to a hot news story—the so-called Swine Flu.
Let’s look at some key points from the release:
From the release:
“…the integrity of all vaccine developers has been called into question by the financial relationship of a leading vaccine advocate [Offit] and a pharmaceutical manufacturer [Merck].”
Offit served as a paid consultant for Merck (a position he no longer holds), the company that funded the development of, and now markets, a rotavirus vaccine (RotaTeq) he invented with two other researchers. Consistent with common practice, Offit and his co-inventors assigned the patents on their invention to their employers, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology (WIAB), and each ultimately received a share of the payment when the patent was subsequently sold to another company.
Assuming, for just a moment, that this relationship should ethically preclude Offit from discussing vaccine safety in general, I’d like to know how this reflects on all vaccine developers. That’s rather like saying the financial relationship between Andrew Wakefield and the plaintiffs’ attorneys who paid him to research a vaccine-autism connection tarnishes the integrity of all autism researchers and all attorneys.
“[Offit] failed to tell millions of viewers that while he was promoting MMR as safe he had also made tens of millions of dollars from selling another vaccine patent to Merck, which is the manufacturer of MMR.”
It may be that Offit failed to tell Dateline NBC viewers he made money from the sale of a patent on a rotavirus vaccine he co-invented, however he is hardly hiding the fact; he has volunteered many times that he made a great deal of money from the patent sale.
Dateline’s producers were surely aware of this fact, and evidently did not deem it important enough to include in the program.
[CORRECTION: As Sullivan reminds me, the fact that Offit made millions from his rotavirus vaccine was clearly stated by Lauer in the story, and he asked Offit directly about conflict of interest in a segment of the program. Offit responded that he did not feel that it represented a COI in his discussing MMR.]
“’When Dr. Offit went on Dateline he was probably disinclined to criticize the MMR vaccine since it is produced by the same pharmaceutical company that made him a wealthy man,’ said Jim Moody, attorney for the National Autism Association (NAA).”
Or perhaps he was disinclined to criticize MMR because it is safe and effective, and it prevents thousands of deaths and millions of cases of serious illness worldwide every year, and because the criticism the NAA wants to hear (that MMR causes autism) is unfounded.
Moreover, Dr. Offit doesn’t stand to benefit financially from denying an autism-MMR connection, nor from withholding criticism of Merck, from whom he no longer derives any income. It is truly base to imply that a man like Offit, who has dedicated his career to improving the health of children around the world, is hiding information about a serious health problem simply out of feelings of loyalty to a corporation that helped make him rich, but to whom he is not further beholden.
“According to CHOP documents, Offit’s share of a royalty sale for the Rotateq [sic] vaccine to Merck is a minimum of $29 million and may approach $50 million.” 
The NAA release continues:
“‘If people are to have confidence in the integrity of the Swine Flu vaccination program this fall then we need full disclosure of all financial relationships between proponents and manufacturers on every vaccine on the market. Who has an objective opinion about a company that has made them rich?’”
Of course, the Swine Flu vaccination program has nothing to do with Offit, MMR, Merck, Dateline NBC, the rotavirus vaccine, or anything else discussed in this press release.
It is a very wide stretch to get from “Paul Offit won’t criticize MMR because a company that sells it once funded the research that earned him millions for his share in a patent on another vaccine” to “people should not have confidence in the Swine Flu vaccine.” This is nothing more than an awkward attempt to use public concern over swine flu, and the concomitant media coverage, to tarnish vaccines as a whole, and to ensure the NAA’s lies get maximum exposure.
The NAA, in fact, makes their intention (and the stupidity of the release’s premise) explicit in the next paragraph:
“Although the RotaTeq vaccine that enriched Offit has no relationship to MMR, his close financial connections to Merck, if disclosed, are likely to affect the public’s value of his opinions on the efficacy of the MMR vaccine.
So, Offit has no relationship to MMR, nor to the Swine Flu vaccine, yet they still felt compelled to issue a news release titled: “Offit’s Failure to Disclose Jeopardizes Swine Flu Vaccine Program: Doctor Who Made Millions Off MMR Manufacturer Does Not Tell Public of His Financial Relationship During NBC Dateline [sic] Broadcast”?
The best defence is a good offence.
Now we get to what I believe is the real purpose of the NAA press release: deflecting negative attention from Andrew Wakefield.
Quoth Wakefield: “‘It is, at a minimum, disingenuous of Dr. Offit not to tell the public through the Dateline program what he told Congress in 2000,’ said Dr. Andrew Wakefield, Executive Director of Thoughtful House autism treatment center, who was also featured in the program. ‘Even if he is no longer a consultant to Merck, the fact the company made him wealthy by buying his rotavirus vaccine is certain to make him warmly view the company and its products, including MMR. Let us hope that all such relationships are disclosed prior to any Swine Flu vaccination program.’”
Wakefield was “also featured in the program”? Wakefield, and his (mis)conduct was the main subject of the program. (And notice the attempt to tie everything to the Swine Flu again? Thought you would.)
This is the same Andrew Wakefield who failed to disclose that he received more than £400,000 from plaintiffs’ attorneys who were engaged in a lawsuit against MMR manufacturers, claiming their clients had been damaged by the vaccine. The same Andrew Wakefield whose name appears on a 1997 patent application for a new measles vaccine that claimed also to treat “inflammatory bowel disease and regressive behavioural disorder.” Those would be the disorders Wakefield’s discredited 1998 Lancet study claimed were possibly linked to the so-called “triple-jab” MMR that was in general use. Neither of these potential conflicts of interest were noted in the study.
The NAA partially acknowledges this in their press release, saying:
“Although physicians are frequently paid for their medical expertise in legal cases, Wakefield fully disclosed his relationship with the litigators in various UK media stories and publicly reported documents.”
Nice try, but Wakefield publicly disclosed this only after reporter Brian Deer uncovered the connection in his articles in The Sunday Times, and he certainly didn’t disclose them in the Lancet paper, nor during the subsequent press conference and video news release he participated in to publicize his findings—a press conference that ignited the public’s fears about an MMR-autism connection, and ultimately resulted in MMR uptake in Britain falling to a rate that last year allowed measles to become endemic there for the first time in 14 years.
That scandal, and the scientifically unsupported controversy Wakefield started, were, after all, the very subjects of the Dateline NBC story the NAA news release is responding to. The NAA is trying to divert attention from Wakefield’s behavior by condemning one of his critics on issues wholly unrelated to the topic.
(While we’re talking about Dr. Wakefield, has anyone else wondered why a news release from the NAA has a dateline from Austin, TX—where Wakefield’s autism treatment clinic, Thoughtful House is located—instead of Nixa, MO, where the NAA has its headquarters? Or why a copy of the release, ostensibly by the NAA, does not, as of this writing, appear on the NAA website?)
From the release: “As a member of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice [ACIP], Offit also voted to include the rotavirus vaccine in the Vaccines for Children program, which ultimately made his Rotateq [sic] product worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Merck.”
The authors’ carefully worded sentence deliberately confounds Offit’s vote on a different vaccine with his own vaccine. What they conveniently fail to mention is that: a) Offit voted to include the RotaShield vaccine—a direct competitor to his vaccine, which was not yet licensed, and whose dominance in the market could have made any patent on his competing vaccine worth far less; b) He recused himself from the vote that ultimately withdrew approval for RotaShield; and c) He was no longer on the ACIP when his vaccine, RotaTeq, came up for a vote.
The release then quotes NAA president Wendy Fournier:
“’Not only does he advance the absurd suggestion that children could safety get 100,000 vaccines at a time, he opposes any studies of the comparative health of unvaccinated children that could shed light on the extent and nature of vaccine-caused injuries, leading to their prevention.’”
The “100,000 vaccines” gambit has been hashed over many times. It came from a 2005 article in Babytalk magazine, in which Offit was asked about parents’ concerns that too many vaccines could “overwhelm” a baby’s immune system. Offit used the figure (originally 10,000, but he subsequently claimed 100,000 was a more accurate figure) to illustrate the vast number of challenges a baby’s immune system is equipped to handle.
As for his opposition to a vaccinated-vs.-unvaccinated study, most scientists would likely agree. Such a study would be nearly impossible to do with any sample size that would provide a useful result (see this for elaboration.) It would be a waste of resources, and in my opinion, would almost certainly not change the minds of those calling for it. (Remember what happened when Sallie Bernard was allowed to help design a Thimerosal study?)
The release closes with a flourish of huffy (and hypocritical) righteous indignation that Offit would dare speak out on vaccination:
“Beyond Offit’s financial conflicts, autism advocates are also dismayed about the physician’s credibility on speaking about autism in general, as he does not treat patients with autism.”
The authors use the term “autism advocates” when they really mean anti-vaccinationists. Many autism advocates do not believe, as the NAA does, that vaccines are to blame for autism, and many anti-vaccinationists are not autism advocates.
“’It’s a mystery how such an inexperienced and financially conflicted man has become the go-to guy for information on autism,’ commented Ms. Fournier. ‘Here’s a man with no real knowledge about autism that again and again appears in media coverage. Not only is he completely unqualified to address autism from a medical standpoint, his financial conflicts of interest disqualify him as a credible source for vaccine safety commentary as well.’”
To the best of my knowledge, Dr. Offit is not the “go-to guy” for autism, nor does he present himself as one. He’s the “go-to guy” for vaccine information, and is extensively interviewed on vaccination safety as it relates to autism and other issues. He has spent most of his career studying pediatric infectious disease, immunology, and vaccine science, and is one of the few willing to wade intrepidly into the shark-infested waters of the vaccine manufactroversy.
Dr. Offit’s most recent book, Autism’s False Prophets did, obviously, address autism. The book provided a background on the current strain of anti-vaccinationism as it relates to autism, and was highly critical of unproven treatments for autism, some of which arose as a result of the vaccines-cause-autism hypothesis. Readers can determine for themselves if he is a credible source of information on those topics; the book is widely available in bookstores, on Amazon, and in libraries. (It may also be worthwhile to note that the man anti-vaccinationists refer to as “Dr. PROffit” donates all royalties from the book’s sales to autism research.)
Whom does the NAA believe to be credible “autism experts?” According to another recent press release, included in the roster of “world’s most renowned autism experts” are:
Okay, so far, so good. Although some may be critical of these scientists’ positions on autism, at least they can be said to have backgrounds that potentially qualify them as autism experts.
The remainder of the roster are folks that have become “experts” not through research or education, but by hanging out their shingles to offer unproven treatments for autism, or by virtue of the fervor of their belief that vaccines cause autism:
- Dr. Jeff Bradstreet, family physician, naturopath, and co-founder of International Child Development Resource Center (IRDC), which offers bio-medical treatments for children with autism, and sells his “Creation’s Own” line of dietary supplements to treat autism.
- Dr. Russell Blaylock, former neurosurgeon turned newsletter editor and supplement salesman.
- Dr. Jerry Kartzinel, pediatrician, DAN! doctor, and co-author with Jenny McCarthy of Healing and Preventing Autism.
- David Kirby, former journalist and author of Evidence of Harm, a book promoting the theory that Thimerosal in vaccines causes autism.
- Barbara Loe Fisher, mother, anti-vaccination activist, and founder of the National Vaccine Information Center.
and of course
- Dr. Andrew Wakefield, gastroenterologist turned autism doctor.
- 1. According to the CDC, in the decade prior to the introduction of the measles vaccination program, an estimated 3-4 million people in the U.S. were infected each year; 48,000 were hospitalized, 1,000 developed chronic disability, and 400-500 died. Thanks to widespread vaccination, measles cases have been reduced an estimated 99% in the United States. However, measles remains a significant cause of mortality in the developing world. In 2007, an estimated 197,000 people died of measles.
- 2. Critics point to the fact that Dr. Offit holds the Maurice R. Hilleman Endowed Chair in Vaccinology at CHOP, a position created with $1.5 million in funding from Merck. The endowment was made in 2005; Merck cannot rescind it regardless of anything Offit might say about MMR or any of its other products.
- 3. I contacted the NAA to request their source for the cited CHOP documents. They referred me to www.pauloffit.com, a site created by J.B. Handley, founder of Generation Rescue, specifically to discredit Offit, and to an article on the Age of Autism blog in which the authors based their estimates (which are presumably the source of the NAA press release’s $29 to $50 million figures) on a 2006 CHOP policy document. That document outlines a change in royalty sharing policy that became effective in Nov. 2006. The 2006 policy would not have applied to Offit, as his patents were filed under the previous agreement. (See here for a more thorough rebuttal of the Age of Autism article.)
- 4. The $6 million figure is in line with CHOP’s policy for sharing patent revenues with inventor-employees at the time Offit and his two co-inventors filed their patents:
50% distribution on the first $250,000 = $125,000
30% distribution on the next $250,000=$75,000
15% on the next $4.5 million=$675,000
10% on the remainder ($182,000,000 – $875,000=$181,125,000): $18,112,500/3 = $6,037,500