Private Eye
8 June - 21 June 2007
MMR Conflict of Interest Zone
Red faces at the General Medical Council (GMC), which next month will
decide whether Dr Andrew Wakefield is to be struck of for allegedly failing
to declare a conflict of interest between his research and his role as an
expert in the MMR litigation.
The man chosen to chair the GMC's disciplinary panel deciding Dr
Wakefield's fate and that of two of his former colleagues at London's Royal
Free Hospital, has an unfortunate clash of interest of his own.
Prof Denis McDevitt, a clinical pharmacologist, once sat on the government
advisory committee that looked at adverse reactions to vaccinations and
immunisations and considered issues of MMR safety. He attended meetings
that discussed warnings from other countries about an early form of the
triple jab, using the Urabe strain of mumps virus, which caused
encephalitis and meningitis.
Despite warnings and the fact that this vaccine had already been withdrawn
in Canada, the Urabe-containing jab was introduced in the UK in 1988. After
it caused meningitis and encephalitis in children, it was finally withdrawn
in 1992 and replaced with the safer - and more expensive - MMR II. (Eye
readers may recall how the drug manufacturers off-loaded their dodgy
vaccine to Brazil where a hospital in Salvador was said to have been
"saturated" with encephalitis cases.)
Some of the 12 children whose medical history featured in the controversial
1998 Lancet paper, drawn up by Dr Wakefield and his colleagues and which
suggested a possible link between the jab and bowel disease and regressive
autism, had received the Urabe-strain vaccine - as indeed had some of those
children in the high court litigation with manufacturers.
In fact another embarrassing clash of interest has arisen in the law courts
too. Parents who claimed their children were damaged by the vaccine have
complained that Mr Justice Davis, the judge who in 2004 sanctioned the
withdrawal of legal aid, should never have sat on the case. His brother,
Sir Crispin Davis, is a non-executive director and shareholder of Glaxo
SmithKline, one of the defendant drug companies in the litigation. The loss
of legal aid effectively scuppered the claims of most of the 1,000-plus
families who were suing.
A spokesman for Mr Justice Davis said that "the possibility of any conflict
of interest arising from his brother's position was not raised with him and
did not occur to him. If he was wrong, any possible remedy must be sought
from the court of appeal."
Meanwhile, back at the GMC the Eye asked if Prof McDevitt was being removed
from the disciplinary panel. A spokeswoman said the composition of panels
was never discussed ahead of hearings, but that "as with any case we will
have satisfied ourselves that there is no conflict of interest for any of
the panellists". We assume that means he will not now be sitting. Watch
this space.