March 03, 2010

Brian Deer Hired to "Find Something Big" on MMR

By John Stone

Brian Deer was hired by the Sunday Times to find “something big” on MMR and started his investigation “with an empty notebook”.

Brian Deer revealed in an article last month in British Medical Journal that he was hired by a Sunday Times section editor in September 2003 who told him he needed “something big” on MMR (HERE ). The investigation, according to Deer, was not commenced on information but “with an empty notebook”.  We are not told by Deer why the editor needed the story, and it is disturbing that the investigation apparently began as a fishing expedition. So far, BMJ have failed to respond to concerns.

Deer wrote: 

“For me the story started with a lunch. So many do. "I need something big," said a Sunday Times section editor. "About what?" I replied. Him: "MMR?"” 

and goes on:

“So I took an empty notebook and made my own inquiries. It was the largest Sunday Times medical investigation since thalidomide.”

Deer does not at this point mention Andrew Wakefield but it seems likely that the editor wanted something “big” on the main critics of MMR rather than the product. It has been widely reported that the section editor was Paul Nuki, and the son of Prof George Nuki, who sat on the Committee on Safety in Medicines when it passed Pluserix MMR vaccine as safe for use in 1987 (which was later withdrawn 1992 after adverse side effects ): Pluserix was manufactured by SmithKlineFrench Laboratories, which was later incorporated into GlaxoSmithKline.  In 2007 Paul Nuki left the Sunday Times to manage a UK National Heath Service website (‘NHS Choices’ ). 

While it has not been explained why the editor should have needed a “big” story on MMR the UK House of Commons Health Committee stated in its report ‘The Influence of the Pharmaceutical Industry’ in 2005 p.60:

‘The use of PR to counter negative publicity’

‘221. ………. Considerable resources are invested into building long-term, sustainable relationships with stakeholders and ‘key opinion leaders‘ and journalists. These relationships are used to promote the use of certain brands and counter concerns relating to safety. Efforts to undermine critical voices in particular were identified, under terms of “issues management”. In later evidence, in response to the ISM’s memorandum, Pfizer stated that PR is entirely legitimate and can “help to educate and inform”. According to the PMCPA, PR activities may include “placing articles in the lay press, TV documentaries, soap operas etc“.’ 

Later on in February 2009 Sunday Times proprietor James Murdoch was appointed to the board of MMR manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline with a brief to “help to review "external issues that might have the potential for serious impact upon the group's business and reputation"” (Guardian UK) . Coincidentally, or not, this was swiftly followed by new attacks on Andrew Wakefield’s reputation by Deer and other Times Newspaper journalists (HERE), (HERE), (HERE) & (HERE).

Deer also failed to disclose in the BMJ article that he was privately the author of at least three complaints to the GMC , as disclosed by Mr Justice Eady in the High Court.

BMJ have yet to publish my letter expressing concerns about some of these conflicts:-

"Grave concerns - are we are being led?" 
I note a new feature of this story recorded here [1] which should 
arouse disquiet. Brian Deer tells us that a Sunday Times editor approached 
him to find a story, rather than investigate one which already existed.
"For me the story started with a lunch. So many do. "I need something 
big," said a Sunday Times section editor. "About what?" I replied. 
and Deer goes on to confirm: 
"So, I took my empty notebook and made my own enquiries" 
But crucially we are not told why this editor needed "something big". 
I believe it is also of concern given what followed that Deer was 
named by Mr Justice Eady as a complainant to the GMC about Wakefield [2]: 
"Well before the programme was broadcast [Mr Deer] had made a 
complaint to the GMC about the Claimant. His communications were made on 
25 February, 12 March and 1 July 2004. In due course, on 27 August of the 
same year, the GMC sent the Claimant a letter notifying him of the 
information against him." 
Indeed, we still do not know of any other complainant in the case, 
and Deer does not explain this part of his role in the affair here. I 
think we are entitled to know this as background to the present somewhat 
wistful reminiscences, but even more importantly why did the editor need 
something "big" on MMR (or, by implication, on its critics), and what 
exactly hung on it? Otherwise we are surely simply being led. 
[1] Brian Deer,'Reflections on Investigating Wakefield' Published 2 
February 2010, doi:10.1136/bmj.c672 
[2] Melanie Phillips, 'A deer in the headlights', The Spectator 16 
February 2009, 
Competing interests: 
Autistic Son