Antivaccine nonsense Autism Politics

Kevin Barry, you magnificent bastard, I read your antivaccine book!

Kevin Barry wrote a book featuring the transcripts of the “CDC Whistleblower’s” conversations with Brian Hooker as evidence that there’s a conspiracy at the CDC to hide scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. Well, I read Barry’s book, and it is incredibly thin gruel indeed.

I don’t review books that often. The reason is simple. My posts for this blog sometimes take as much as a several hours to write (particularly my more “epic” ones that surpass 5,000 words), and I usually don’t have the time to add several more hours to the task by reading an entire book. Also, by the time I’ve read a book I might want to review, weeks—or even months—have often passed, and a review is no longer of much interest to our readers anyway.

Today, I’m making an exception for a book hot off the presses. The main reason is curiosity, because the book is about a topic that I’ve blogged about many times here, and I really wanted to find out more about what was going on. I didn’t expect to find out what really happened, because I knew from the beginning that the book, Vaccine Whistleblower: Exposing Research Fraud at the CDC by an antivaccine lawyer named Kevin Barry, would be highly biased. However, as I found out a few weeks ago, the book promised four complete transcripts of telephone conversations between the “CDC whistleblower,” a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) psychologist named William W. Thompson who has been a co-investigator on important CDC studies since the late 1990s.
Vaccine Whistleblower
Given my rather public skepticism about the particulars of Thompson’s story, I was quite surprised when my request to Barry’s publicist for a review copy of Vaccine Whistleblower was enthusiastically answered in the affirmative, thus giving me time to read the e-book before it was released. I’m guessing she won’t make that mistake again. In any case, all I have to say to Barry is this: “Barry, you magnificent bastard, I read your antivaccine book!

#CDCWhistleblower: The background

Thompson, as you will recall, was a CDC psychologist and co-author on several pivotal papers examining whether vaccines cause autism. All of the studies were negative, of course, but to antivaccine activists that just adds to the conspiracy. Thompson’s rather implausible “revelations” that the CDC covered up data showing a link between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and autism in African American boys birthed the whole “CDC whistleblower” phenomenon almost exactly a year ago. Most recently, I summarized the whole situation when Rep. Bill Posey (R-Florida) got up on the House floor to demand an investigation into the “scandal” and then again when the announcement was made that the book would soon be published. The two recent incidents provided me with enough quotes attributed to Thompson that I concluded he had gone antivaccine. Indeed, he accused his former co-investigators of outright scientific fraud in the form of improperly (or so it was implied) throwing away original data. Thompson based his claim of a cover up on a truly incompetently done “reanalysis” of Destefano et al., which he later touted for its “simplicity,” apparently not realizing that simplicity in statistical analyses of epidemiological data is not a virtue. Suffice to say, the original correlation was based on small numbers and disappeared when proper corrections for confounders were made. Not surprisingly, Hooker’s reanalysis was ultimately retracted.

Thompson himself has been silent—at least publicly—since last summer, when this whole kerfuffle erupted, and probably wisely so. Whatever his motivation, he has caused considerable damage with his foolishness in having trusted Brian Hooker. Or so I had thought. It turns out, if Vaccine Whistleblower is any indication, that Thompson was actually an enthusiastic participant in bringing about this scandal. Indeed, he appears to have turned antivaccine in such a way that he distinctly reminds me now of Andrew Wakefield, albeit without the charisma and hunger for the spotlight but with at least as much anger, resentment, and narcissism. You’ll see what I mean soon enough, but here’s a taste. At one point, Thompson accuses drug companies of “hyping” measles outbreaks and the failure to eradicate polio, describing them as a “never-ending thing where the press loves to hype it and it scares people and how “it scares the crap out of people when they hype those two types of outbreaks.”

Yes, Thompson has gone full antivax.

The setup

Vaccine Whistleblower is a rather short book designed to showcase the transcripts of four telephone conversations recorded—legally, Barry is quick to point out multiple times—between Brian Hooker and William Thompson on May 8 (Transcript #1), May 24 (Transcript #1), June 12 (Transcript #3), and July 28, 2014 (Transcript #4). The first two conversations are rather brief (around 5,000 words each), while the last two are quite long (over 8,000 words each).

Barry begins with a Foreword by, of all people, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Right away, all I can say is: Way to go, Mr. Barry! If you want to portray yourself as being “not antivaccine,” as you say in the book so many times, there’s no better foreword writer to pick than RFK, Jr.! Hilariously, RFK, Jr. begins his Foreword by declaring again, as he did on The Dr. Oz Show, that he is “fiercely pro-vaccine”:

I have always been fiercely pro-vaccine. I had all six of my children vaccinated. I believe that vaccines have saved millions of lives and that broad vaccine coverage is desirable. To achieve those goals, we need safe vaccines, transparent and reliable science, and an independent regulatory agency. The extraordinary revelations in this book by CDC insider and whistleblower Dr. William Thompson prove that, unfortunately, we have none of these.

RFK, Jr.’s declaration is risible in the extreme.

It’s also apparent that these four transcripts were carefully selected. I base this conclusion on two observations. First, in the transcripts, Hooker and Thompson pal around as though they’ve been buddies a long time. For example, in Transcript #4, before anything of substance is recorded, the reader is treated to three and a half painful pages of Hooker and Thompson bantering about Hooker’s new iPhone 5s, Thompson’s family vacation in Chicago (where his kids played drum and guitar in a blues camp), and Hooker’s vacation near Mt. Shasta and the drum and bugle corps he enjoyed watching, which ended with his tale of hitting a deer, complete with a description of the gore flying back at them as semis hit the deer again and again. Clearly these passages are included to emphasize that Thompson and Hooker had become best buds, and it works. I’ve changed my opinion of Thompson. He wasn’t duped; Hooker was duped after he told Wakefield about the transcripts of his phone conversations. Thompson himself was all in.

The other observation is that the first contact between Hooker and Thompson was in November 2013, earlier than I had thought. It’s not clear who reached out first, but it’s clear from the gist of the transcripts that Thompson had been planning long before that to “go rogue” and that his colleagues didn’t trust him—with good reason, it turns out. Also, RFK, Jr. states in his foreword that there were “over thirty conversations with Hooker” in which “Thompson disclosed in great detail the CDC’s tricks for executing the fraud.” So why were just these four chosen for publication in Vaccine Whistleblower? Inquiring minds want to know, particularly given that these four conversations actually don’t reveal that much. If, as is presumably the case, these are the best Hooker could come up with, I wonder about the rest. It’s not as though the book was so long that he couldn’t have included a couple of more or omitted the pointless hundreds of words’ worth of dull pleasantries between Hooker and Thompson to make room.

Be that as it may, May 2014 is, according to the May 24 transcript, when Thompson was becoming concerned enough about his situation at the CDC that he engaged Frederick M. Morgan, Jr. of Morgan Verkamp, a lawyer specializing in whistleblower claims, who is representing him pro bono and issued the last known public communication by Thompson in the form of his statement dated August 27, 2014. It thus appears that, even if Andrew Wakefield hadn’t “outed” Thompson a year ago, it probably wouldn’t have been too long before he went public, particularly given that Hooker wanted him to and news of his existence had begun to percolate through the antivaccine underground. Indeed, at the time of the phone conversations documented in Vaccine Whistleblower, he had already long been in contact with Rep. Posey, pushing him to investigate and providing him with “100,000 pages” of…it’s not exactly clear what.

Predictably RFK, Jr. links Thompson’s “revelations” with his claims of CDC malfeasance and conspiracy mongering about a study looking at thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism and the CDC conference in which the data were discussed that ten years ago formed the basis of his abysmally antivaccine pseudoscience article, “Deadly Immunity“. It’s a lot of the same ol’, same ol’, as RFK, Jr. seems incapable of thinking up a new antivaccine schtick. Similarly, disgraced antivaccine chemist Boyd Haley shows up to write a preface in which he touts his “extensive study of this issue over many years” to claim that thimerosal-containing vaccines are dangerous.

Revisionist scientific history I: Thimerosal, vaccines, and tics, oh, my!

The first time through the book, I wondered why on earth the preface and the foreword both featured antivaccine activists who are all about mercury in vaccines. After all, what originally vaulted Thompson into the “CDC whistleblower” status were his accusations of scientific malfeasance against his former colleagues over a study from 2004 examining whether the MMR vaccine was associated with autism in African American boys, which, I noted, was the only subgroup where an effect was found. That’s why I originally characterized Hooker’s “reanalysis” of the DeStefano et al. data, purged of all those pesky statistical techniques designed to correct for confounders, as proving Andrew Wakefield wrong in his assertion that the MMR vaccine was correlated with an increased risk of developing autism. Getting a “positive” result in African-American boys required small numbers of this subgroup (which the study had) and ditching corrections for confounders that produce a spurious correlation, as I’ve discussed before. Even so, I was surprised at how little emphasis, relatively speaking, was given to DeStefano et al. in the transcripts chosen to be included in Vaccine Whistleblower. Maybe it’s because, as Jim Frost described, there’s just no there there.

Far more discussion occurred between Thompson and Hooker over a study on which Thompson was the first author. Even more astonishingly, these transcripts show that Thompson doesn’t even know how to interpret his own data, which were quite clear. The study I’m referring to is a 2007 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) by Thompson et al. entitled “Early Thimerosal Exposure and Neuropsychological Outcomes at 7 to 10 Years.” It’s a study that, as RFK, Jr. takes pains to point out, Dr. Paul Offit characterized as “wonderful” and “definitive.” And so it is, but that doesn’t stop Thompson from now reinterpreting it in the wrong way.

It also doesn’t take long for the first inkling to appear in the transcripts that Thompson has gone antivaccine. This exchange occurs in Transcript #1 early on:

Dr. Thompson: I just think there has to be a mantra. The mantra should be, “We know thimerosal causes tics.” That’s been demonstrated. That’s been demonstrated in the big studies. And just keep saying that, “We know thimerosal causes tics.” ‘Cause the CDC never said that thimerosal doesn’t cause tics. The CDC always says thimerosal doesn’t cause autism. You have to take it off that. You have to take it off that. And I really do think it’s a public relations campaign. But I also have to say these drug companies and their promoters, they’re making such a big deal of these measles outbreaks and they are now, they’re making a big deal that polio is coming back and polio comes back all the time in third world countries. It’s like a never- ending thing where the press loves to hype it and it scares people. It scares the crap out of people when they hype those two types of outbreaks. I think as they teach you at the CDC, you have to stay on message. And the message I think to start getting out and then you wouldn’t have the press jumping on you saying, “Well vaccines don’t cause autism.” If you said, “Yeah, that’s true, but vaccines do cause tics.” And then eventually, eventually you could get the message over to oh tics are like five times as common among kids with autism.

Dr. Hooker: Right, it’s about four times, but, yes, absolutely.

Dr. Thompson: I do think that it’s staying on message with something different than autism because the press and everyone, you know, Jenny McCarthy, all those people. You bring up autism and vaccines you just get hammered. Who’s the company that, who sponsored one of your groups?

Dr. Hooker: Oh, Chili’s.

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, Chili’s just got fried. They just completely got fried.

Yes, you read that right. Immediately after the “Hello, how are you?” pleasantries, we see Thompson coaching a biochemical engineer turned antivaccine warrior on how to properly sell an antivaccine message. Forget about autism (for now), Thompson says. That’s too toxic, too associated with kooks like Jenny McCarthy. Instead, say that vaccines cause tics and go from there! It’s rather ironic how Thompson, after complaining how people working for the CDC “have to stay on message,” immediately provides Hooker a message to counter what he dismisses as the CDC message. Then Thompson complains about how Chili’s got “fried.” Most readers probably don’t remember this event, but in 2014 Chili’s came under fire for having scheduled a day to donate 10% of the day’s proceeds to the National Autism Association, which is, of course an antivaccine group posing as an “autism advocacy” group. Indeed, the NAA has explicitly stated on its website that one of its core beliefs is that vaccines can cause autism.

But is Thompson correct about thimerosal-containing vaccines acting as a cause of tics? The answer is no. However, before I get to how Thompson is now misinterpreting his own study, let me briefly touch on other articles that Thompson cited as evidence that thimerosal-containing vaccines cause tics. The first is what is commonly referred to as the Italian study:

Dr. Thompson: …And you can point to that Italy study (Tozzi et al. 2009) and just look at the means and the means are quite different in that study for tics. I really do think that study actually supports the idea. And then the other thing about the Italy study, the Italy study was the only randomly assigned study and it was a much smaller exposure so if you find something in there and they found two positive effects, right, if I’m recalling correctly, so again, ya know, a study that is randomly assigned, it’s the only study I know where there was random assignment and you found two negative associations where it was increased likelihood of maternal, I mean, verbal IQ and I can’t remember the other one. But tics, I’m telling you, if my recollection is correct, tics were significant in earlier drafts of the paper.

Really? Let’s go to the tape, so to speak and see what Tozzi et al. really concluded. This particular study was clever in that it took advantage of an existing randomized study of two different diptheria-tetanus-acellular-pertussis (DTaP) vaccines, one that contained thimerosal and one that did not. This produced two groups of children who had been randomized, one whose vaccine schedule contained a cumulative intake of ethylmercury, the mercury metabolite of thimerosal, of 137.5 μg for the children who were assigned randomly to receive the DTaP vaccine that contained thimerosal (“higher intake group”) and 62.5 μg for those who received the thimerosal- free DTaP vaccine (“lower intake group”).

Ten years later, the children from this study living in the Veneto Region were studied. 1,403 children (697 belonging to the high thimerosal group and 706 belonging to the low thimerosal group) were recruited and subjected to a battery of eleven neurodevelopmental tests that produced a total of 24 neuropsychological outcomes to assess their development. The results were unsurprising. Most outcome measures showed no difference between the low and high thimerosal group, and the ones that did were small and entirely compatible with random chance due to multiple comparisons.

As I described when I discussed the study in detail, for 78 different univariate statistical tests between all the outcome measures of all the tests (some outcome measures were tested by more than one test, and separate tests were done for males, females, and the entire sample), by random chance alone they would expect four “statistically significant” associations by univariate analysis. They found two. Girls had slightly lower scores in a measure of motor function, the finger-tapping test with the dominant hand, and a language test, the Boston naming test. As the authors described it, the differences were very small and of doubtful clinical relevance. My guess is that these apparent associations would probably disappear if a correction for multiple comparisons were applied. Moreover, only one case of autism was found, and that was in the group with the lower thimerosal dose. As for tics, the study reported that motor tics were observed for 2.56% of patients in the lower thimerosal intake group and 2.91% of patients in the higher intake group (RR: 1.13; 95% CI: 0.60–2.13; p = .744, Fisher’s exact probability test) and that phonic tics were detected for 0.43% of patients in the lower intake group and 0.87% of patients in the higher intake group (RR: 2.04; 95% CI: 0.51–8.13; P = .338, Fisher’s exact probability test). In other words, it was not statistically significant; so Thompson is reduced to insinuating that the effect was statistically significant in earlier drafts of the paper. The Tozzi study was not without weaknesses, but antivaccine complaints against it were generally without a basis in science and did not invalidate its results.

Revisionist scientific history II: Thompson misinterprets his own study

The other study that Thompson harps on in the transcripts is one by John Barile at the CDC published in 2012. Here’s what he says about it:

Dr. Thompson: It’s going to take two or three years, right. They tell me, they’re two and a half years behind, and they actually said with Posey thing treat it as a FOIA because he’s not the head of a committee. So, I just, again, you gotta come up with a different message where you won’t get hammered and they can’t deny it. Right? The only thing I know for sure, is that I can say that pretty confidently, vaccines cause tics. We replicated that. The Barile article replicated that and showed that once you took into account the number of tests and reduced them down to constructs, the one thing you couldn’t get to go away was the tic effect.

Dr. Hooker: Was the tic effect, right. I agree. And I’m even using that in my son’s vaccine court case, because he has tics and so, we have that. It’s been confirmed in several studies, not to mention your study and then the Barile study that was the reanalysis from 2012. And I’ll go back and look at those means on Tozzi as well.

Thompson is also listed as a co-author on Barile’s study. A word of explanation regarding authorship is in order here. Thompson is last author, which usually signifies the corresponding author, the senior author who was the one overseeing the research. However, the article lists John Barile as the corresponding author, which means that Thompson, listed last, was deemed the author who contributed the least to the study. The study itself is a reanalysis of Thompson’s own 2007 NEJM study that he is now misinterpreting. So it’s not unreasonable here to discuss the Thompson 2007 study. This is a study that pointedly did not look at autism but rather at other neurodevelopmental outcomes. Basically, it was a cohort study that studied children from four HMOs that participate in the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink. A total of 1,047 children between the ages of 7 and 10 were evaluated with a battery of standardized tests assessing 42 different neuropsychological outcomes and these outcomes were correlated with exposure to mercury, estimated from prenatal maternal exposures to thimerosal-containing vaccines and exposures after birth.

As Steve Novella and yours truly explained at the time, for some reason the investigators chose not to adjust for multiple comparisons. It is thus not surprising that they found some statistically “significant” exposures. One of these adverse associations was between thimerosal and tics in one HMO population and between thimerosal and language delay in another. Here’s where Thompson goes off the rails, taking a page from antivaccine activists like Sallie Bernard and David Kirby, Thompson cherry picks the negative association and ignores the positive. Why does this matter? Simple. By examining 42 neurodevelopmental outcomes and not correcting for multiple comparisons, Thompson made it virtually certain that a handful of the outcomes would be “statistically significantly positive.” Consistent with random chance, some of these were positive (as in mercury is protective against an adverse neurodevelopmental outcome) and some were negative. As a blogger other than Steve or me put it so aptly at the time:

The CDC study looked at 42 different outcomes, and determined multiple confidence intervals in each case, since different levels of exposure were tested. In total, I understand there were over 300 confidence intervals. Consequently, assuming the null hypothesis is correct, you should expect that an RR of 1.0 will be outside the 95% confidence interval in over 15 measures. What the study found was that in 12 measures there was an apparent protective factor, and in 8 measures there was an apparent risk factor. This is completely consistent with the null hypothesis. Therefore, the conclusion of the study, namely that the results of the same do not support a causal association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and neurological outcomes, is absolutely the correct conclusion.

Exactly. If you accept that thimerosal “causes” tics, then you have to accept that it also increases IQ. There is no basis to accept one correlation and reject the other. The most parsimonious explanation is that this study found no differences not attributable to random chance.

So what did Thompson do? He reanalyzed the data, with the help of John Barile, and published it in a pediatric psychology journal using “measurement models to assess more efficiently the associations between thimerosal exposure and theoretically meaningful neuropsychological constructs using a subset of the outcomes from the original study” and items “primarily based on the previous studies that found significant associations between methylmercury exposure and neuropsychological outcomes.” In other words, they got rid of all the other comparisons by organizing “25 of the measures into the following theoretical constructs based on expert opinion and previous literature: general intellectual functioning, verbal memory, fine motor coordination, executive functioning, behavior regulation, tics, and language.” By torturing the data this way, they found one statistically significant association between exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines and the presence of tics among boys but not among girls. They concluded that “given that the association between thimerosal and tics has been replicated across several different studies, it may be informative to consider additional studies examining these associations using more reliable and valid measures of tics.” The problem is that those previous studies were not particularly convincing, and neither is this one, particularly given that the effect was only seen in boys. In the transcript, Thompson is even quite blatant when he explains why he chose to publish his reanalysis in a psychology journal:

Dr. Thompson: …And here is the other thing, is you gotta get it out of the medical journals, you gotta move it to the psychology journals. I don’t know if you saw but the Barile article got published in a psychology journal. It wasn’t actually, it was like Pediatric Psychology.

Dr. Hooker: It was the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, I saw that.

Dr. Thompson: Right, but if you get it out of the medical world and into the psychology world, you are not going to get as much bias from the medical establishment that has such a strong hold over these medical journals.

Dr. Hooker: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I’m not as well traveled in that realm. Is the Journal of Pediatric Psychology a good one to look at?

Dr. Thompson: It’s a great journal. It is a very good journal. We got great reviews from that journal. I’ll tell you. They actually made us [unintelligible] our discussion. They actually said, why are you downplaying the association with tics? So, actually made [UI] . . .

In other words, he looked for a sympathetic journal with a relatively low impact factor (2.472). Next, I predict, he’ll be publishing in bottom-feeding pay-to-publish journals.

To sum it up, Thompson didn’t understand why a statistically insignificant result was statistically insignificant while his co-authors did understand. They didn’t describe this statistically insignificant result as statistically significant, as Thompson wanted them to. Wracked with misplaced guilt over having “participated in a coverup,” Williams is trying to “expose” his former co-authors by buddying up with an antivaccine “researcher” named Brian Hooker. In the process, all he’s doing is demonstrating his ignorance of statistics and a number of not-so-admirable qualities.

Inside politics and “persecution” at the CDC

One thing that becomes apparent reading this book is that Thompson, like Barry, has a definite agenda. He also doesn’t think very much of his colleagues at the CDC. Interestingly, despite Rep. Posey’s use of an alleged quote by Thompson accusing his co-authors on DeStefano et al. of destroying data, no such statement is found in the book. Instead, however, on many occasions, Thompson expresses concerns that he’ll be labeled as “mentally ill” or “crazy” by the higher-ups at the CDC. For example, in Transcript #2, there is this exchange:

Dr. Thompson: Well I [laughing], Brian, this is where you and I don’t know each other very well and I . . . Here’s what I struggle with, is I struggle with saying anything that isn’t in writing that can’t be backed up. Here’s my fear okay? Let’s say you go public with anything okay? Whatever and then it becomes clear that you got information from call me. And then people will immediately say, “Well, he’s mentally ill and why would you believe anything that he says, it’s just hearsay.”

Dr. Hooker: How do people know about your business? Why do they know about ya know . . . It’s really none of their business your mental state or whether you’re quote-unquote mentally ill or not.

Dr. Thompson: I know but it will become, it will become, that will be the way they undermine me.

It’s hard for me not to point out here that Thompson’s “allies” Brian Hooker and Andrew Wakefield have already basically thrown him under the bus with respect to whether he suffers from any form of mental illness. They even alluded to this when they wrote a letter to the CDC demanding an investigation of Thompson’s allegations, quoting Thompson as saying that he had become “delusional” in a conversation dated May 24, 2014. When I went back to look at their letter, I noticed that that’s the same date as Transcript #2 in Vaccine Whistleblower, and there is no mention of that transcript. There are, however, two notations of “edited due to sensitive personal information” in this transcript, specifically:

Dr. Thompson: I know, maybe, maybe not, but I’m saying what he [Thompson’s whistleblower lawyer] and I agreed to. This is a lawyer that was reading through these documents that had never seen them before. And I basically was telling this guy I was complicit, and I went along with this, we did not report significant findings. Ya know, I’m not proud of that and uh, it’s probably, it’s the lowest point in my career that I went along with that paper. [Edited due to sensitive personal information.]

Thompson was quoted in Hooker and Wakefield’s letter as saying:

Ya know, I’m not proud of that and uh, it’s probably the lowest point in my career that I went along with that paper and I also paid a huge price for it because I became delusional

The match between the last sentence of the first quote and the first sentence of the last quote tell me I found the right place. There is another example as well.

As I said at the time, how low can Wakefield and Hooker go? In order to imply that the magnitude of the “crime” Thompson was being forced to be party to was so massive that it led him to some sort of mental breakdown, Hooker betrayed Thompson’s confidences about a very personal health issue. Barry, at least, left this part and another quote about Thompson’s having been delusional out of his book. I have no idea what Thompson’s mental state was or is (and deem it irrelevant for the purpose of assessing his veracity and credibility), but it’s odd that he fears that the CDC might paint him as mentally ill to discredit him but willingly cozied up to people who have already painted him as mentally ill when it suited their purpose.

Be that as it may, what comes through loud and clear in all of the transcripts is Thompson’s utter contempt for and fear of his former co-authors and colleagues, as well as other people in the government. He’s also a bit of a misogynist, referring to a woman at one point as being “like a twenty-five-year-old bimbo that they have do their dirty work.” Time and time again, he unloads to Hooker about how he fears that they will collude to deny anything he claims and turn it into his word against theirs, the presumption being that their word will be what is believed. He claims that the CDC “watered down” DeStefano et al and his own NEJM study when, even by his own account, what happened sounds like the normal give and take that goes on in the multiple layers of approval that any study done by a government agency has to go through before it is approved for submission for publication. He even brings up Poul Thorsen being suspected of committing fraud with CDC research grants, a man that antivaccinationists like to portray as being somehow “central” to the CDC’s studies that failed to find a link between vaccines and autism, when in reality he is anything but and those of us who oppose antivaccinationists would be more than happy to see him face justice. It’s just another place where Thompson sounds just like an antivaccine activist.

He and Hooker even talk about how Mark and David Geier tried to do what needed to be done when they tried to go beyond the IRB and merge Vaccine Safety Datalink datasets and lamenting how it’s not possible any more to do what they tried to do. Amusingly, though, Hooker points out that “it doesn’t really do me any favors to publish with the Geiers.” Given the Geiers’ history of atrociously unethical science in the name of blaming thimerosal for autism and Mark Geier’s history of having his medical license revoked, that has to be the understatement of the year!

Perhaps the most telling part of this whole exchange is here:

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, it’s all there. Um, but I’ve never looked at it yet. But I could actually go into the database right now and do a frequency count on things. But, I’m not going to do anything like that right now. I’m just really trying to sort this all out. I’m trying to, ya know I’m being in trouble because I’m blowing up and stuff like that and I’m getting really agitated and I just have to settle down.

Dr. Hooker: Right, you had mentioned on I think on a previous voicemail something about maybe taking a leave of absence or um or uh putting in for a new assignment.

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, I was considering getting detailed out of the branch. The downside to that is I would no longer have access to this type of information that I am sharing with you. I’m learning more and more. As I ask more and more, I’m learning more and more. I am, these people are like in one big bubble, they uh and their bubble is getting smaller and smaller.

So, on May 24, 2014, Thompson admitted to Hooker that the only reason he’s sticking around his branch of the CDC even though everybody there had come to distrust him (as well they should!) was to have access to information that he could funnel to Hooker, such as the existence of the SEED project, a dataset that contains the health records of 1,200 children, 800 of whom are confirmed autistic, with complete vaccination records. Thompson was also royally ticked off about the lack of use of this resource:

Dr. Thompson: So, um, what’s amazing, now this is what’s going to be shocking to you, it shocked the crap out of me. They have ya know six different sites interviewing data and um they all put in proposals to do studies. So far there is about sixty proposals in, um, for people ready to do studies. Not a single one of them looks at vaccines, not one! [laughing] So, I, well, I ripped into these people this week. And I’m like, “These vaccine studies have to be done. This is the largest case-control study you could ever do. They’re all objectively identified as kids with autism. You have the vaccine records.”

So, assuming this is true, Thompson is outraged that, of all the sixty proposals for studies using SEED project data thus far submitted, none of them looks at vaccines? If that’s not an indication that he’s become antivaccine, I don’t know what is! Let’s just put it this way: Did it ever occur to Thompson that the reason there are no proposals for studies using the SEED data that examine vaccines is because, from a strictly scientific standpoint, there is no interest in vaccines as a cause of autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders. The reason for that is simple. It’s been studied to death, and there is no credible evidence to support the hypothesis that vaccines (or just thimerosal-containing vaccines) cause autism. Like any good antivaccinationist, William Thompson cannot accept the science.

In fact, so antivaccine has William Thompson become that he and Brian Hooker gleefully trash other antivaccine groups for betraying the cause. Sallie Bernard, for instance, comes in for particularly harsh criticism, with Hooker dismissing her as a “double agent.” Mady Hornig, who produced the widely derided “autistic mouse” is disparaged by Hooker as “shacking up” with Ian Lipkin, whom Thompson chimes in to dismiss as an “arrogant dick,” even though they were married at the time. Of course, Hornig later did a study that tried to replicate Andrew Wakefield’s case series in The Lancet and failed to find a correlation between MMR and autism. How fast antivaccine heroes fall when they embrace science!

Kevin Barry’s agenda

I see little reason to write extensively about the rest of the book, the chapters that Kevin Barry wrote to fill it out to a measly 172 pages, counting the foreword by RFK, Jr., the preface by Boyd Haley, and Barry’s “executive summary” of the four transcripts. However, these still must be briefly discussed. This book is, if nothing else, intended as antivaccine propaganda, in which a former member of the hated “other side” recants and changes sides. Barry clearly wants to use Thompson to attack the vaccine program and to use Thompson as a motivator to prod antivaccinationists to agitate for political action and investigations into vaccine safety. That’s why the last three chapters of the book are dedicated to using Thompson’s betrayal of the CDC and science to demand that the President act:

The entire vaccine program is under the Executive Branch. It’s long past time for presidential leadership to take the issue of vaccine safety seriously. If President Obama won’t do it, then the next president must clean out the Immunization Safety Office and replace everyone but Dr. Thompson. Ideally, the replacements should do their best to resist unethical behavior, resist omitting significant data, and not lying in the first place.

Barry also demands that Congress “schedule hearings, issue subpoenas, and compel testimony under oath” and asserts:

As Dr. Thompson indicates, the lack of accountability must end. The White House, Congress, and the press need to hold CDC accountable for the lies and deception regarding vaccine safety over the past fifteen years. The same applies to the American Academy of Pediatrics—the nation’s pediatricians have also been deceived.

The funny thing is, nothing in Vaccine Whistleblower actually demonstrates this. All we have are the words of a very angry man, William Thompson, who clearly has been nursing a grudge against his former colleagues since at least 2003 and is willing to make accusations without significant evidence at them. All we have from this very angry man are a highly select number of transcripts, only four out of over 30, in which this bitter man makes his accusations. It’s all very one-sided, and unfortunately the CDC, probably because Thompson has lawyered up with one of the best whistleblower attorneys in the country, is being painfully vague and discreet in its response:

CDC is aware that employee Dr. William Thompson has raised concerns regarding an article he co-authored that was published in 2004 in Pediatrics. Consistent with CDC’s existing policies and procedures, the agency, through its Office of the Associate Director for Science (ADS), and in coordination with the HHS Office of Research Integrity, is reviewing these concerns. The agency will provide further information once the review is completed.

The bottom line is that this book is nothing more than propaganda, and deceptive propaganda at that. The sad thing is that a formerly reputable scientist, William Thompson, provided the grist for the propaganda because he apparently has an ax to grind against his former co-investigators. In any other organization besides a government organization, Thompson would have been fired a long time ago for incompetence and being a troublemaker, and he would have deserved it. Instead, Thompson has kept his job and is, of necessity, treated with kid gloves.

As for Barry’s book, it is propaganda, nothing more. What’s worse is that it isn’t even very good propaganda. It’s hard to read, and hits the reader over the head with its message, which isn’t even earned based on the thin gruel that the four transcripts provide. Indeed, if there was one impression of Thompson that I got from reading all the transcripts, it was of narcissism. Therein lies the comparison to Andrew Wakefield. As I read Thompson’s complaint, what came through loudest was his unshakable belief that he is right and everyone else at the CDC is wrong, that the only reason anyone could disagree with him is because they’re indoctrinated or bought off. To him his colleagues are not just wrong but incompetent, ideologically blinded boobs who are out to destroy him.

In fact, I can’t help but wonder if we are seeing a new Andrew Wakefield being born and if his name is William Thompson. I’m just thankful that, unlike the real Andrew Wakefield, the “CDC whistleblower” appears to be retiring and publicity-shy, preferring to act behind the scenes. Unfortunately, he can do a lot of damage to the vaccine program just the same.

Additional reading:

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]


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