Vaccines and autism – conflicts of interest in research

Vaccines and autism – conflicts of interest in research

Conflicts of interest in research is one of the fundamental tropes of people who seek to diminish the value of biomedical research, even if the research is peer-reviewed and is published in a highly respected journal.

The vaccine deniers try to dismiss all medical research that has even the appearance of conflict of interest.

From my point of view – yes, we should examine research with a conflict of interest, especially in medical research, more carefully. But, as I’ve said a hundred times, it’s not one article that matters, it’s the body of work. Science is based on evidence that is analyzed, critiqued and, most importantly, repeated – repeatedly.

In the world of vaccines (including that annoying and loud anti-vaccine fringe group), one of the recurrent themes is that immunizations cause autism, and any research that disputes that belief is biased and/or supported by Big Pharma. That is the definition of conflicts of interest in research – this is repeated so often, sometimes I believe it.

But then I get back to reality and know that the scientific consensus, repeatedly repeated, supports the fact that there is no evidence that autism is related to vaccines or is caused by vaccines. 

Conflicts of interest in autism research


Recently, I wrote an article about what I thought was groundbreaking research into the links between vaccines, thimerosal, and autism. The article, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (PNAS), showed that vaccines, in many different combinations, including those with thimerosal (the preservative that is claimed to be pure, unadulterated mercury) were unrelated to autism in rhesus monkeys.

It’s wonderful research. Using a primate model that is a stand-in for humans (because, we all know that evolution is a fact, and that some monkeys are closely related to humans, genetically and physiologically), it compared vaccinated groups to placebo groups, and found no differences in neurological development.

Given the anti-vaccine trope that there is no good research unless it’s a comparison to a placebo, this study should end the trope forever. Well, I can hope.


Except I erred, badly. The research had a substantial conflict of interest that I failed to notice. I am a terrible, useless, careless skeptic. I should have read the “Acknowledgements” section which have lead me to ignore this paper that was nothing but a conflict of interest.

The study was partially funded by SafeMinds, an autism advocacy group that was probably looking to sponsor some good scientific research about vaccines and autism.

Wait! What? SafeMinds?

SafeMinds believes that vaccines, especially the thimerosal component, causes autism. They base their pseudoscientific belief an an article by Bernard et al. published in non-peer-reviewed journal, Medical Hypotheses, arguably one of the worst and most laughable journals in the world. The journal regularly published AIDS denial articles, so that about does it right there.

SafeMinds has no shame in its anti-vaccine advocacy. It’s scientific advisory board includes Dr. Bob Sears, who, if you read any pro-science website regarding vaccines, is one of the loudest and meanest antivaccination physicians around. Bob Sears simply pushes junk science about vaccines.

Thanks to Protecting Children and Communities through Vaccination – Global Network. Find them at


Science and conflicts of interest


This is how real science works with real scientists with integrity. Even though the research was sponsored by an “autism advocacy” group that probably has no integrity whatsoever, the research continued a long, long list of research that shows that autism is clearly unrelated to vaccines and thimerosal.

When I see a single paper published, sponsored by a Big Pharma grant, I get concerned, especially if that paper makes some claims about the Big Pharma drug that seems to be outside of the consensus. But if that paper is repeated by other researchers in other ares, conflicts of interest become much less important.

The body of research that says vaccines do not cause autism contains nearly 150 papers. Yes, some of the research is sponsored by Big Pharma. Part of the reason for the funding was because vaccine manufacturers were concerned whether there was something there.

Sure, they were probably scared of lawsuits or bad press, but what they really wanted to do was find out if A) it was true, and B) why? Science works by gathering data, and Big Pharma is based on science (mostly, I admit I wonder about some things). Drugs are discovered through the scientific process, and they’re improved by the same way.

Conflicts of interest in medical research should be an important factor. But it would introduce bias into results if those results are ignored, especially if those results are supported by other research.

At this point, I’m going to have to ignore the conflict of interest issues where an antivaccine advocacy group sponsored this recent study. It was challenging to do so. It made me a bit ill. But good research is good research, even if it is sponsored by SafeMinds.

Key citations


The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!
  • Chris Preston

    This wasn’t that good a study really. There were too many treatments and not enough control arms for a start. Secondly, a group of animals was sacrificed for a hypothesis that had no support in the scientific literature. The author’s literature review was also poor, failing to reflect the consensus position around vaccines. I am a little surprised that it made it into PNAS; academic publishing can be an interesting beast at times.

    But leaving all that aside, the results were largely as would be predicted based on previous research. Despite this, the anti-vaxxers will never accept it. They have no problems accepting a fraudulent study based on 12 cases, but argue that 12 animals in a group is too small. As Science Mom writes, the best thing about this study is that it will show how dishonest the anti-vaxxers are. It is a pity that so many animals had to die to make that point.

  • Science Mom

    Gotta love the integrity of anti-vaxxers. They caterwaul for a “vaxxed v. unvaxxed” study which we all know is unethical but the way around that is with non-human primates. The study is done with funding by vaccine causation and sympathetic groups. The study is done more rigorously and with larger sample sizes than previously performed by the same investigators. But is rejected by the anti-vaxxers including one of the benefactors. There will never be any convincing them. There is a silver lining though which is that this demonstrates the inherent dishonesty that pervades anti-vaxx groups and how willing they are to waste money (and lives) on a study which has the same results as so many others.

  • zapp7

    The anti-vaxxers won’t ever believe a result that disagrees with them. Now they are saying this study is garbage because there were only 12 monkeys in the thimerosal group and autism rates are between 1 in 68 to 1 in 200. Of course, ask them how many monkeys would have to be in the study for them to accept the result, and they respond “monkey research cannot be translated to humans.” So why bother doing the study (which involves killing monkeys) in the first place?! Just can’t win with these bozos.

  • Craig Payne

    I have no problems with conflicts of interest in research as long as it is declared; the funder puts no restraints on publication (ie non-publication of negative results); and the measurement of the outcomes in the study are done in a blinded fashion.
    Without “industry” funding a huge amount of research would not get done.