On 28 January, the Fitness to Practise Panel of the GMC announced its findings of fact in the case brought against Dr Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues Professor John Walker-Smith and Professor Simon Murch.
In summary, the Panel found that the research which led to the publication of a paper in the Lancet in 1998 and which first raised the possibility of a link between MMR vaccination, autism and bowel disorder had not been carried out in accordance with ethical requirements. The Panel also concluded that the facts proved against each doctor were not insufficient to amount to serious professional misconduct. The hearing will therefore resume, it is anticipated in April 2010, in order for the Panel to consider whether the findings do amount to serious professional misconduct and, if so, what sanction, if any, should be applied.
Seven members of 1 Crown Office have been involved over the past few years in these long-running GMC proceedings. The GMC was represented by Sally Smith QC, Owain Thomas, and Christopher Mellor, Dr Wakefield by Kieran Coonan QC and Neil Sheldon and Professor Walker-Smith by Stephen Miller QC and Andrea Lindsay Strugo.
The GMC Panel found that research carried out on children and subsequently written up in the Lancet medical journal was conducted in breach of the relevant ethical requirements and was not described properly in the published paper.
It also found that Dr Wakefield caused the children to undergo a series of investigations for research purposes, some of which were not clinically indicated, without the approval of the Ethical Practices Sub Committee of the Royal Free Hospital and that he contravened limitations in his contract of employment to the effect that he was not to have any involvement in the clinical management of patients.
It also found that Dr Wakefield acted dishonestly and in breach of his duties in dealing with funding from the Legal Aid Board, and failed to declare this funding and his involvement as an expert in the MMR litigation to the Ethics Committee.
It has found in relation to the Lancet paper that Dr Wakefield was dishonest in failing to state that the children involved were part of a project to investigate a link between gastrointestinal symptoms, disintegrative disorder and vaccination and that the description of the referral of the children in the paper was misleading.
Further, the Panel found that Dr Wakefield failed to declare discloseable interests to the Editor of the Lancet, namely his involvement in the MMR litigation, his receipt of funding from the Legal Aid Board and his involvement in the filing of a patent for a new vaccine for the elimination of MMR and measles virus.
In relation to Professor Walker-Smith and Professor Murch, the Panel made findings that they too bore a responsibility for the conduct of the research in breach of ethical requirements, that they caused the children to undergo a series of investigations for research purposes without Ethics Committee approval and that they caused some of the children to have procedures such as colonoscopies and (in Professor Walker-Smith’s case) lumbar punctures which were not clinically indicated. The panel found that all three doctors had acted contrary to the clinical interests of some of the children involved in the project.