Apr 242011

Danish researcher, Poul Thorsen, has been indicted on 13 counts of wire fraud and 9 counts of money laundering for allegedly setting up a scheme to steal more than $1 million in autism research money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.The federal government also seeks forfeiture of all property derived from the alleged offenses, including a house, two cars and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

From 2000 to 2009, the CDC awarded over $11 million to two governmental agencies in Denmark to study,among other things, the relationship between autism and exposure to vaccines. In 2002, Thorsen moved to Denmark and became the principal investigator for the grant, responsible for administering the research money awarded by the CDC. Once in Denmark, Thorsen allegedly began stealing the grant money by submitting fraudulent documents to have expenses supposedly related to the Danish studies be paid with the grant money.

From February 2004 through June 2008, Thorsen allegedly submitted more than a dozen fraudulent invoices, for reimbursement of expenses that he claimed were incurred in connection with the CDC grant. Based on these invoices, Aarhus University transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars to bank accounts held at the CDC Federal Credit Union in Atlanta – accounts that Aarhus University believed belonged to the CDC, but which were instead personal accounts held by Thorsen, the federal government said. After the money was transferred, Thorsen allegedly used the money to buy a home in Atlanta, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and Audi and Honda vehicles, and to get numerous cashier’s checks.

Thorsen allegedly pocketed more than $1 million from the scheme.

So why do we care? Because Thorsen was one of eight authors of the famous Danish Study which showed no connection between MMR vaccine and autism, and other vaccine related research. Quite predictably, the anti-vaccine proponents are trying to use Thorsen’s alleged financial fraud to cast doubt over his vaccine studies. SafeMinds has released this press release which says, among other things:

Autism and Vaccines Researcher for CDC, Indicted for Fraud and Money-Laundering
SafeMinds demands long-overdue independent review of vaccine/autism research for data manipulation and conflicts of interest. Vaccine safety remains questionable.

“The quality of this epidemiological research has always been questionable,” states Sallie Bernard, SafeMinds president. “Many biological studies support a link between mercury and autism, but these Danish studies have been used to suppress further research into thimerosal. With clear evidence of Dr. Thorsen’s lack of ethics, it is imperative to reopen this investigation.”

In addition, internal emails obtained via FOIA document discussion between the Danish researchers and Thornsen which acknowledge that the studies did not include the latest data from 2001 where the incidence and prevalence of autism was declining which would be supportive of a vaccine connection. The emails also include requests from Thornsen to CDC asking that the agency write letters to the journal Pediatrics encouraging them to publish the research after it had been rejected by other journals.

A top CDC official complied with the request sending a letter to the editor of the journal supporting the publication of the study which they called a “strong piece of evidence that thimerosal is not linked to autism”.

The important question for us is not whether Mr. Thorsen did in fact commit financial fraud or not, but the implications, if any, that this alleged fraud has on the scientific studies he was involved with. What evidence is there to suggest that his financial fraud affected the studies’ results? It seems obvious that SafeMinds never liked the study to begin with, but are there any reasons to doubt the science?

General Reasons why Thorsen’s alleged financial fraud does not affect the science
  • It’s financial fraud, not scientific fraud. If I solved a math mystery today, and killed someone tomorrow, does my criminal act of tomorrow throw any doubt over the validity of my mathematical proof of today?
  • According to the actual indictment (Page 2, Paragraph 6), Thorsen did not move to Denmark and become responsible for managing the money until some time in 2002 and the actual fraudulent activity did not start until early in 2004. By that time the Danish Study which was published in November 2002 in the New England Journal of Medicine was already concluded. Furthermore, another Thorsen study, which appears to be the one SafeMinds is referring to in their press release, and which is the one Age of Autism’s J.B. Handley despises, was published in September 2003. The alleged fraud started after both studies were published. How the financial fraud casts doubt on the studies remains to be explained by the anti-vax lobby. The studies themselves may, or may not, have issues, if that is what the anti-vaxer wants to talk about we’d have to look at each of them in turn, but financial fraud that started happening in 2004 does not affect studies published in 2002 and 2003.
  • Thorsen was one of eight authors in the Danish Study, and one of seven in the 2003 thimerosal study. Only one other researcher appears in both studies (Kreesten Madesen). So either he bribed Madsen twice, and another 11 scientists once to mess up the studies, as the anti-vaxers imply, or nothing of that sort happened. You can decide for yourself which is the most likely possibility.
  • The results of the studies were immaterial to Thorsen’s alleged scheme. Firstly because the wrongdoing he’s being accused of happened after these studies were published. Secondly, because the scheme as described depended on false invoices being submitted for payment, and had nothing to do with the studies’ conclusions. As a matter of fact, if one wanted to carry on with this scheme, one would tamper with the data so as to give ambiguous results, not clear ones. In that case the researchers could make a case for additional studies, thus additional money to be embezzled.

The charges against Poul Thorsen are serious; research money is very tight and if the allegations turn out to be true, he would have to pay the appropriate consequences, no ifs or buts about it. However, true or not, Thorsen’s embezzlement wrongdoings would have nothing to say about the studies that he was involved with. As far as evidence about the validity of the scientific studies he was involved with, this embezzlement does not even warrant the word “circumstantial” before it.

However what is even more revealing about this case is how quickly the anti-vaccine proponent, who so adamantly refused to accept the direct fraud evidence put forth by the British Medical Journal in the Wakefield 12 patient study, embraces the worst of not-even-circumstantial evidence to declare a study on 500,000 children invalid. The cognitive dissonance in the anti-vaxer’s brain is amazing, to say the least.
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  7 Responses to “Danish researcher indicted for financial fraud”

  1. You forgot to address SafeMind’s point on the perceived quality of the epidemiological data presented in the study. The fact is that Bernard and Handley and the various anti-vaccine folks only consider it poor quality because it doesn’t agree with their preconceived notions of what the evidence should show. Neither Bernard nor Handley would know quality research if it hit the two of them upside the head. Of course you made a similar point on their approach to the Wakefield studies, but I thought it worthwhile to state it explicitly.

  2. Marc, you’re exactly right. I’ve seen, over and over again, the statement that the study is fatally flawed, but not once have I seen any explanation of those ‘flaws’. They just keep repeating that, as if that will make it true.

  3. Marc, could you please show us a qualified critique of the study? Something other than from a nurse or a venture capitalist. The PubMed index identification number to the letter would be sufficient. Thank you.

    And what about the several other studies that do not show a correlation between autism and vaccines? Sullivan listed them here:

    Plus, Dr. Gorski discussed how Thorsen’s influence was minor and does affect the science here:

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