Did the Government Censor an Expert Witness Who Changed His View on Vaccines?

A deep dive into some misleading statements contained in a recent “Full Measure” segment produced by Sharyl Attkisson.

Published Jan. 21, 2019

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On 9 January 2019, the Full Measure Sinclair Broadcast Group program hosted by Sharyl Attkisson, alleged to have uncovered “new information” about the vaccine-autism debate that would expose “one of the most consequential frauds ... in human history.”

Attkisson's report was picked up by medical conspiracy theorists such as Mike “Health Ranger” Adams of the Natural News website and Alex Jones of Infowars. “Gov Official Confirms Link Between Vaccines and Autism,” read the factually deficient Infowars headline.

Attkisson’s segment revived discussion of the alleged suppression of testimony by pediatric neurologist Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, who had provided that testimony for the government in a series of court cases used to determine the plausibility of a link between autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and vaccines. Attkisson's Full Measure segment opened with this teaser:

Dr. Zimmerman was the government’s top expert witness and had testified that vaccines didn’t cause autism. The debate was declared over. But now Dr. Zimmerman has provided remarkable new information.

He claims that during the vaccine hearings all those years ago, he privately told government lawyers that vaccines can, and did cause autism in some children. That turnabout from the government’s own chief medical expert stood to change everything about the vaccine-autism debate. If the public were to find out.

And he has come forward and explained how he told the United States government vaccines can cause autism in a certain subset of children and United States government, the Department of Justice suppressed his true opinions. This was one of the most consequential frauds, arguably in human history.

Though the segment suggested in its opening sequence that Zimmerman came forward to Attkisson publicly as a whistleblower, it should be noted that Attkisson did not speak with him. We reached out to Zimmerman ourselves, but he would only speak to us if given the opportunity to review our story before publication, a condition we declined. Instead, Zimmerman issued us a written statement via his employer, the University of Massachusetts Medical School (displayed in full at the end of this story).

In that statement, Zimmerman said (in part) that, “media reports have mischaracterized an affidavit I provided in September 2018 regarding my opinion about the complex interplay of inflammation, mitochondrial disorders and the risk of developmental regression in children with autism, expressed in the context of the US Department of Health and Human Services Omnibus Autism Proceedings in 2007.” Here we will explain the controversy behind those media reports, which has its origins in a set of court cases (the Omnibus Autism Proceeding) that sought to investigate alleged links between autism and vaccination. After providing that context, we pick apart some misleading claims in the Attkisson piece.

The Omnibus Autism Proceeding

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an act that created the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP, also sometimes referred to as the “vaccine court”) as part of a compromise between vaccine producers and the federal government, a forum that allows litigants to seek restitution for alleged vaccine injuries. Although rarely issued in response to a clear medical findings, the court frequently settles cases that result in compensation for the litigants. Over a decade after the NVICP's creation, in 1998 and 1999, a series of events raised the fear that patients could develop autism as a result of vaccination, and this fear resulted in a massive increase in the number of autism claims put before the vaccine court.

In February 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a (since retracted) case study in the medical journal The Lancet suggesting a connection between the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, bowel disease, and autism. The link, which could not be replicated in other studies, relied on manipulated data and suffered from serious ethical and methodological problems, leading to its retraction 12 years later. In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a precautionary measure requiring vaccine manufacturers to phase out the mercury-containing chemical thimerosal from their vaccines, spurring speculation that the government was hiding a link between thimerosal and autism. This notion was further popularized in a (heavily corrected and ultimately retracted) Rolling Stone/Salon article penned by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in 2005.

In response to the increased numbers of autism claims following these controversies, the vaccine court and a “Petitioners’ Steering Committee” (PSC) representing over 5000 litigants agreed to test three specific theories of a vaccination-autism link, using lawsuits selected by the PSC to be the strongest cases: “(1) that MMR vaccines and thimerosal-containing vaccines can combine to cause autism; (2) that thimerosal-containing vaccines can alone cause autism; and, (3) that MMR vaccines alone can cause autism.” (The PSC chose not to present the third theory, ultimately, as much of that evidence was produced in cases selected to test theory 1.)

The Andrew Zimmerman Controversy

Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist who studies autism spectrum disorders, initially submitted testimony in 2007 regarding the case Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, in which he stated his view that “there is no evidence of an association between autism and the alleged reaction to MMR and [Mercury].”

Later, however, Dr. Zimmerman said he told Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers that he wanted to add one narrow and specific exception to his original statement (our emphasis): “that there may be a subset of children who are at risk for [developmental] regression if they have underlying mitochondrial dysfunction and are simultaneously exposed to factors that stress their mitochondrial reserve.”

Vaccination, Zimmerman argued, could potentially be a factor that "stress[ed] mitochondrial reserve." Zimmerman maintained that after informing the DOJ of his revised opinion three days before his scheduled testimony, DOJ lawyers asked him “not to testify”. He later learned that his original opinion, without the mitochondrial dysfunction modifier, was cited as evidence in both the Cedillo case as well another case: Hazlehurst v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, a test case for the alleged 'thimerosal and MMR combined' autism mechanism.

“A respected pro-vaccine medical expert used by the federal government to debunk the vaccine-autism link says vaccines can cause autism after all,” Atkisson reported in her segment. To understand why this statement is a flawed reading of the controversy, one first has to understand the scientific case that opened the door for Zimerman’s equivocation on the autism question in the first place.

In 2006, Dr. Zimmerman was a co-author of a case study about a 19-month-old girl who developed ASD symptoms shortly following vaccination. The girl’s family went public with her story in 2008, revealing her name to be Hannah Poling, the daughter of a pediatric neurologist who co-authored the 2006 report with Zimmerman. Later testing, the case study reported, revealed that the girl suffered from pre-existing mitochondrial disorders, a suite of conditions that affect a cell’s ability to use energy properly. In an effort to test the notion that autism is commonly associated with such disorders, the researchers did a retrospective review of autism cases, finding some evidence in support of such an association. Based on that retrospective review, the authors of the 2006 study speculated that "Young children who have dysfunctional cellular energy metabolism ... might be more prone to undergo autistic regression between 18 and 30 months of age if they also have infections or immunizations at the same time."

This speculation formed the basis of an argument that resulted in the Poling family's receiving the first-ever compensation from the NVICP for an autism claim (in proceedings unrelated to the omnibus cases). The Poling conclusion remains controversial, and over 10 years later, a lack of clarity still exists regarding the links between mitochondrial disorders and autism, if any. A 2018 review written by one of Zimmerman’s 2006 case study co-authors argued that “the etiology of mitochondrial dysfunction and how to define it in ASD is currently unclear ... Further research is needed to better understand the role of mitochondrial dysfunction in the pathophysiology of ASD.”

Regardless, Zimmerman’s experience in this case, according to the statement provided to us, underlay his request for an alteration to his testimony.

Attkisson’s Claims, Addressed:

Claim: The legal decisions refuting a connection between autism and vaccination during the Omnibus Autism Proceeding rested primarily on the written testimony of Andrew Zimmerman: FALSE

In her report, Attkisson claimed that Andrew Zimmerman’s unmodified, written testimony formed the primary basis for the omnibus cases that were ultimately unsuccessful, including that of Yates Hazlehurst, the subject of a trial case testing the theory that thimerosal and MMR combined could cause autism: "In 2007, Yates’ case and nearly all the other vaccine autism claims lost. The decision was based largely on the expert opinion of this man, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a world-renowned pediatric neurologist."

In point of fact, the government called nine expert witnesses to testify orally on the alleged connection between thimerosal, MMR, and autism, and they also viewed the written testimony of seven other scientists, one of whom was Zimmerman. The special master in charge of the Hazlehurst case explicitly stated in her decision that Zimmerman’s written statement played a less significant role than the testimony of other experts who testified in person:

Dr. Zimmerman opined [in a written statement] that “there is no scientific basis for a connection” between the MMR vaccination, mercury intoxication, and autism. The [Special Master] has reviewed and considered the filed reports from these experts and finds that the opinions of the experts lend support to the conclusions reached in this decision. In reaching the conclusions set forth in this decision, however, the [Special Master] relies more heavily on the testimony and reports of the experts who were observed and heard during the hearings.

This view was also explicitly stated in the Cedillo case: “Dr. Zimmerman’s report certainly supports the result that I have reached in this case. However, because he did not testify at the evidentiary hearing, his opinion has been far less important than that of the respondent’s experts who did testify, in leading to my conclusion,” wrote the special master in that case.

Regardless, Zimmerman’s proposed amendment to his testimonial statement would have been irrelevant in these cases, as neither the Hazlehurst family nor the Cedillo family ever alleged exacerbation of a mitochondrial condition as the mechanism they were claiming for a link between vaccination and autism in their cases. These court cases tested specific mechanisms of causation, not simply any plausible-sounding mechanism.

Claim: Zimmerman’s knowledge about a potential circumstance in which a vaccine could theoretically affect ASD was hidden from the public until he came forward in 2018: FALSE

In her report, Attkisson states that “Dr. Zimmerman ... privately told government lawyers that vaccines can, and did cause autism in some children. That turnabout ... stood to change everything about the vaccine-autism debate. If the public were to find out.” In point of fact, the theory that vaccination could potentially be a stressor leading to autism in children with a specific form of mitochondrial dysfunction was explicitly stated in Zimmerman's 2006 case report. That topic has been studied in the public forum for over a decade now. The existence of an alleged mitochondrial disorder-autism link, which remains murky to this day, is not news now, and it would not have been news during the time the omnibus cases were deliberated.

Additionally, following the omnibus cases, Zimmerman has served as an expert witness in autism cases for petitioners to the vaccine court in cases in which his mitochondrial dysfunction mechanism has been argued, and his statements are easily found in filings made public by the federal government. In a case heard by the vaccine court in 2012, for example, the petitioners argued that a pre-existing mitochondrial dysfunction caused their child to develop autism symptoms after vaccination. They used Dr. Zimmerman, who had treated the patient years later, as one of their expert witnesses, and his testimony is described in detail in the court filing. In that case, the special master characterized Zimmerman’s views as anecdotal in rejecting the petitioner's claim:

Whether vaccination can [can cause decompensation or regression in children with inborn errors of metabolism], even in these most vulnerable children, has not been established… The most glaring problem, however, is that no evidence adduced in this case, other than the anecdotally based opinions of Dr. Zimmerman, demonstrates that the decompensation or regression induced by illness in children with metabolic or mitochondrial disorders looks like, mimics, or actually results in ASD.

These views have been in the public record for years. The only reason Zimmerman’s testimony is in the news again is that he was compelled to write an affidavit about the 2007 incident by someone with a desire to re-introduce an old controversy back into the news cycle.

The Bottom Line

Zimmerman, a scientist with serious credentials who was once a government expert on vaccines, believes that narrow circumstances might exist in which the combination of pre-existing mitochondrial dysfunction and vaccination could trigger ASD. This view is not held by many scientists, and from a scientific-evidence standpoint it remains speculative. The 2018 deposition given by Zimmerman regarding the 2007 sequence of events during omnibus proceedings was compelled by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an anti-vaccine activist with a dubious commitment to scientific accuracy, and Rolf Hazlehurst, a litigant in one of the omnibus cases.

Finally, it bears mentioning that Dr. Zimmerman supports vaccination. “As a pediatric neurologist and member of the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Neurology Society, the American Academy of Neurology and the American Neurological Association, I strongly support the importance of vaccines for all children,” he wrote in his statement:

Statement from Andrew Zimmerman:

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Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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