A documentary on the mother of all medical controversies.
Academy-award winner Robert De Niro and media legend Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, are teaming up to produce a documentary on the mother of all medical controversies: vaccines and their potential link to autism.
This movie, in a way, would be a sequel to a current movie, one in which De Niro played an unhappy off-screen part. De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival planned to screen “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” in April but under withering pressure eventually pulled the film. The Miramax film appears to be De Niro’s response to the clash in which he faced “a big reaction, which I didn’t see coming.”
The pressure, says De Niro, was anonymous, preventing him from engaging with his critics or understanding what he was up against. “I wanted to just know who they were, because to me there was no reason not to see the movie,” De Niro explained to IndieWire “The movie is not hurting anybody. It says something. It said something to me that was valid.”
The documentary has effectively been banned in most North American venues, although it was shown to trade types in Cannes last month and it will be shown at a rep theatre in Calgary this weekend.
Vaxxed describes what the producers see as a cover-up of data in a U.S. Centers for Disease Control study that was published in the journal, Pediatrics. The study, commissioned after a 1998 U.K. paper raised questions about the safety of the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella), was designed to lay to rest public concerns. The CDC study, according to senior scientist Dr. William Thompson, one of its four co-authors, examined the health of children in Atlanta, to see if vaccinating children early with MMR vaccines could result in autism-like characteristics.
To the dismay of the four co-authors, their carefully designed study found that black boys who received the MMR vaccine were 340 per cent likelier to get autism. The co-authors’ reaction? To junk their study’s design by ignoring unwelcome data and to junk, literally, the unwanted results that they had obtained. “The co-authors scheduled a meeting to destroy documents related to the study. (We) all met and brought a big garbage can into the meeting room, and reviewed and went through all the hard copy documents that we had thought we should discard, and put them into a huge garbage can,” Thompson explained in an affidavit provided in 2014 to a member of a U.S. Congressional committee on science.
Ten years later, consumed with guilt that his findings could have prevented harm to children, Thompson turned whistleblower. Over a period of 10 months starting in 2013, he sent thousands of pages of CDC documents and spoke over the phone more than 40 times to Brian Hooker, a scientist investigating vaccines as a possible cause of his own son’s autism. That evidence provides the scaffolding and is the essence of Vaxxed, which opens with numerous media reports (and President Obama) providing assurances that the CDC can be trusted.
“I have waited a long time to tell my story and I want to tell it truthfully. I was involved in deceiving millions of taxpayers regarding the potential negative side effects of vaccines. We lied about the scientific findings. The CDC can no longer be trusted to do vaccine safety work. Can’t be trusted to be transparent. The CDC can’t be trusted to police itself.”
That explanation, written by Thompson in an email and presented in the movie by a narrarator’s voiceover, was then followed up with audio of the actual conversations between Thompson and Hooker.
“My phone rings and it’s Dr. William Thompson,” says Hooker, describing the first of the calls he received from Thompson. Then we hear Thompson’s voice: “You and I don’t know each other very well. You have a son with autism, and I have great shame now.”
Vaxxed relies heavily on those conversations between Thompson and Hooker, which Hooker surreptitiously taped, in making its case that the CDC is a rogue agency, conflicted by its mandate to both promote and to regulate vaccines. But Vaxxed also interviews other medical experts and patients, showing us anecdotal evidence of perfectly normal children who — following vaccination — suddenly degenerate.
One takes place in the living room of Sheila Ealey, with her autistic teenage son, Temple, who has the mental age of a six year old. With refined piano music playing in the background, Ealey describes the scene in the doctor’s office, where she took Temple and his twin sister Lucinda at age 1 to be vaccinated. When Temple had an alarming reaction to his shots, Ealey left without getting Lucinda vaccinated. The camera then pans to a piano in the room, which we see is being played by Lucinda, today an accomplished classical pianist and an A student who speaks three languages.
Vaxxed has apparently opened up the vaccine debate. The CDC has reportedly convinced Thompson to reanalyze the data to find an explanation for the autism in black boys unrelated to vaccines. And the De Niro film in the works has the potential to garner widespread attention (Miramax movies have earned 300 Oscar nominations). What will the De Niro-Weinstein film on this hyper-controversy cover? “I don’t what to talk much about it, because when I talk about it, something happens,” said De Niro.
Lawrence Solomon is research director of Consumer Policy Institute.
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For previous columns by Lawrence Solomon on vaccines, see here.