The double agent who brought down the anti-vaccine fanatics

Almost three years into my investigation of Andrew Wakefield, the now-disgraced former medical researcher who claimed that vaccines cause autism, Wendy Stephen stepped into my life.

It was June 2006 and she introduced herself in a 600-word email as the mother of a vaccine-injured child. 

She told me that in 1991, her baby daughter had received the three-in-one MMR jab against measles, mumps and rubella and lost all hearing in one ear.

This was a rare and recognised side-effect of two brands of MMR that were discontinued in Britain the year after Wendy’s daughter got her shot.

As a result of that injury, Wendy’s family had joined a giant lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. This followed research published by Wakefield in The Lancet medical journal in 1998, erroneously claiming the MMR jab caused autism and chronic bowel disease.

Lawyers had recruited some 1,600 child claimants for the epic litigation, which swallowed £26.2 million of the government’s Legal Aid fund (about £41 million at 2020 prices). 

This action had also been the financial engine driving an MMR scare that terrified a generation of young parents — and led to a huge drop in immunisation levels, exposing countless children to the dangers of measles (which can be fatal), mumps and rubella.

The legal case eventually collapsed amid a total lack of evidence for Wakefield’s claims.

Almost three years into my investigation of Andrew Wakefield, the now-disgraced former medical researcher who claimed that vaccines cause autism, Wendy Stephen stepped into my life

Elle Macpherson is pictured above with Andrew Wakefield in Florida

Elle Macpherson is pictured above with Andrew Wakefield in Florida

Just a few weeks after she emailed me, Wendy and I saw each other at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

A judge was tying up loose ends after the lawsuit had failed.

By then, Wakefield had fled Britain to live in Texas. But he was still facing a raft of charges from the General Medical Council, alleging fraud and dishonesty in his research.

Wendy was a smartly turned-out, middle-aged lady with grey-blue eyes and light brown hair, following the proceedings with an earnest expression.

She wasn’t pleased to see me that day but was at least intrigued by my presence. She blamed me for the fact that Wakefield’s reputation lay in ruins after I’d exposed her hero’s multiple undeclared conflicts of interest.

He had, I’d established, manipulated a mountain of evidence and was responsible for what the British Medical Journal later called an ‘elaborate fraud’.

I’d also revealed that the parents of children with autism and other issues, upon whose allegations Wakefield based his claims, were not — as they seemed — mere routine referrals to hospital.

In fact, they had been recruited through lawyers and anti-vaccine groups and so were pre-selected to blame MMR.

Eventually, Wakefield was struck off the medical register and The Lancet was forced to retract his research.

‘I viewed you as a destructive force,’ Wendy says now. ‘That’s how all of us felt at the time: that you were just driving through the centre of it, destroying everything we were trying to do.’

Back then, she was a hardcore believer, and trailblazer for today’s anti-vaccine activists, who have turned their attentions to the Covid pandemic.

Last weekend, thousands of anti-vaxxers descended on Trafalgar Square in London, vowing to refuse any vaccination against coronavirus and frequently claiming the pandemic itself was a ‘hoax’.

The allure of the anti-vaxxers’ message plays into the hands of those who distrust government and big business — and especially those, like Wendy, who truly have experienced their children being injured by vaccines.

‘I thought there was a huge possibility that Wakefield was right: that MMR caused autism and bowel disease,’ she says today. 

‘[But] I can’t even explain how I ended up conscripted into the Wakefield army. It was pretty embarrassing when I looked back and realised I was hooked.’

On that day 14 years ago when I received her email, I could never have known how crucial Wendy would become to my continuing investigations into Wakefield and his global anti-vaxxer empire. But that message sparked a long correspondence between us that eventually led to Wendy becoming my most crucial source inside Wakefield’s movement.

Over time, she turned ‘double agent’. Unknown to Wakefield, Wendy supplied me with all kinds of confidential and hard-to-find information exposing the scandal of how the public crisis over MMR was created out of thin air by Wakefield, a few parents and their lawyers.

For years, she passed me hundreds of documents, emails, intelligence reports and gossip from the foxholes of the anti-vaccine movement. 

She was also an invaluable researcher, pulling material from the web and consuming hours of video and audio involving Wakefield that I would never have found time to process.

We swapped notes on cases said to have been caused by MMR and joked about the people behind them. She made Freedom of Information requests, including to Wakefield’s former employer, University College London, which invited her to inspect 16 boxes of documents. Who turned up on her behalf? I did.

Through her efforts, I even had Wakefield helping me. I asked Wendy, for example, about a confidential report he had written. She asked him for it, he sent it to her and I was able to quote from it in my new book on Wakefield, The Doctor Who Fooled The World.

Today, for the first time, she is bravely waiving her anonymity.

Of course, in my years investigating Wakefield and the anti-vaxxers, Wendy hasn’t been my only confidential source.

Many people have come to my aid with a string of revelations, such as that Wakefield had filed for a patent on his own supposedly ‘safer’ vaccine at the same time as he launched his attack on MMR.

Most valuable, alongside Wendy, were the families of two boys enrolled in Wakefield’s now-notorious research — carried out at the Royal Free Hospital in North London — who turned over paperwork evidencing what they called his ‘fabrication’ and ‘fraudulent’ claims.

But while those parents went deep into their children’s stories, Wendy went wide across the anti-vaccine movement, year by year becoming closer in her collaboration with me, even as Wakefield believed she was doing the same with him. ‘I had a situation where there were two men,’ she says today.

‘One was a doctor and the other was a journalist. One of them was saying ‘white’ and the other ‘black’. One of them was an honourable man. And one of them was a shyster.’

Wakefield’s ‘army’, she says, has three ranks, or tiers. At the bottom are essentially ‘ordinary people’ with ‘misgivings’ about vaccines (public health specialists call them ‘hesitant’).

Next, there are those with a family member who they think suffered a vaccine reaction.

Finally, at the top, are those individuals ‘totally focused’ on opposing all vaccination.

‘They want to drive out vaccines,’ says Wendy. ‘They are forceful, noisy and you can’t even really get to what started them off in the first place.’

Back in 2006, when she first wrote to me, she was holding her nose: I was an enemy.

But being as much a fighter as any good parent is for their child, she wondered if I could help.

The brand of MMR that Wendy’s daughter had received (discontinued in 1992) contained a strain of live mumps virus called Urabe AM9. In rare cases, this was sporadically causing complications of mumps — the very problem it was meant to prevent. In Wendy’s daughter’s case, it had caused permanent deafness in one ear.

‘I have obviously got a lot more material,’ Wendy wrote to me. ‘I merely ask if there is anything at all, as a journalist with an established interest in MMR, you can do to highlight the plight of the forgotten children who do have merit in their cases.’

She was then 46. Today she is 61: a former psychiatric nurse from near Aberdeen who quit the health service to bring up three girls, now in their 20s and 30s.

With a sharp, ironic humour, she dubs herself ‘Nurse Ratched’ after the fearsome character in the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Andrew Wakefield, meanwhile, was to Wendy ‘The Master’ and his network of supporters ‘The Troops’.

I couldn’t help Wendy with her daughter’s case. Fourteen years ago, after years of falling immunisation levels and outbreaks of measles sweeping the country, no editor I know of would have shown the least interest in rare adverse reactions to vaccines: it would have been irresponsible to amplify them. The risks of not getting vaccinated far outweigh the risks of vaccination.

Yet we carried on corresponding. And over time, she began to have her doubts about Wakefield and the anti-vaxxers’ message.

I’d like to think I won her with my journalism — but my work was only one factor. What mostly drove Wendy to turn double agent was what she saw inside Wakefield’s network. Here were the beginnings of a global anti-vaccine movement, now in full flood over Covid-19, claiming to speak for ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ but doing nothing of the sort.

‘It was all very, very dishonest,’ she says of their activities. ‘Everyone was being manipulated.’

Evidence of that manipulation appeared just months after Wendy first contacted me, when Wakefield emailed her. ‘I am most impressed by your tenaciousness and resourcefulness,’ he flattered her, referring to her posts on websites about Urabe.

He said that he wanted her help on a ‘chronology’ of that saga; he had spotted a campaigning opportunity.

Wendy was thrilled. She was, at heart, a mother defending her child — and Wakefield led her to think he would help.

‘I have plans for these people,’ he told her of those who licensed the two withdrawn brands of MMR.

‘I intend to make assure their place in History [sic]. I will not rest while injustice continues.’

But he didn’t do any of that.

He didn’t help her at all.

His interest in Urabe wasn’t to aid parents but to concoct a preposterous conspiracy theory.

Nevertheless, in Wendy’s mind back then, Wakefield was a public figure. He appeared on TV. And she still believed he was a medical pioneer.

‘I am delighted to help in any way I can,’ she fired back. ‘You will understand that it will take me some time to go through all my material and identify anything of worth, which I will supply to you in instalments.’

She reckons she spent about a year on his project, researching online, studying papers from around the world, filing Freedom of Information requests, then battling when many were rejected.

Years later, Wendy saw online a video Wakefield had made, in which he falsely claimed the General Medical Council (GMC) case against him — which ultimately saw him struck off as a doctor — had been brought to cover up the Urabe saga.

‘This is really the origins of this whole process,’ he falsely claimed in the video, as he tried to explain away his disgrace and the ignominious end of his medical career.

Watching the video, Wendy knew she’d been duped.

‘He used me,’ she says today. ‘It sounds stupid but I have to be honest about my own stupidity. But he kept prompting me to think that what I was doing would be useful, for a purpose.’

She isn’t alone in feeling ‘used’ by Wakefield. During the 14 years in which Wendy and I have collaborated, I’ve had anonymous tip-offs, unsolicited emails and late-night conversations with informants, mostly women, saying the same.

Even Wakefield’s ex-wife Carmel O’Donovan, who slaved like a dog to try to defeat the GMC, would eventually be dumped for Elle Macpherson, the wealthy Australian supermodel.

Wendy had begun to have serious doubts about the anti-vaxxers’ claims when she was invited to join a secret organisation in September 2008. It was called the ‘New Autism Initiative’ or ‘NAI’ and had been founded in 2005 by Carol Stott, an academic psychologist who was hired by Wakefield’s legal team during the marathon lawsuit.

‘We referred to Stott as ‘The Colonel’,’ Wendy says. ‘She was behind everything. She was the pivotal member of his team.’

Andrew Wakefield's anti-vaxx film is pictured above

Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaxx film is pictured above

I got fair warning about where the colonel would lead her troops. Before Wendy and I first spoke, Stott had bombarded me — as a journalist investigating Wakefield — with menacing, sometimes obscene emails, making clear what she had in mind.

‘Try me, s*** head,’ Stott introduced herself. ‘Beleive me [sic], you will lose.’

Email traffic between the group’s members revealed one overarching target: me. They planned to place ruinous allegations against me, including false claims that I had illegally obtained medical records and withheld documents from the GMC.

For their campaign — funded by deep-pocketed American anti-vaxxers — they recruited the now-dead celebrity publicist Max Clifford, who was later jailed for sexual assaults on girls as young as 15. Stott brought Clifford along to Wakefield’s disciplinary hearing.

‘A media outcry will force action,’ Wakefield promised Stott, in an email that Wendy managed to obtain for me.

Like a nest of Russian dolls, all reporting to Wakefield, ‘NAI’ in turn controlled a public group called ‘Cryshame’, which ran a website and organised demonstrations outside the GMC’s London offices.

‘Dr Wakefield saved our children,’ yelled one NAI member, whom a judge later ruled had ‘fabricated’ her claim that a vaccine had damaged her child.

Aiding Stott in Cryshame was one of Wakefield’s many lawyers: a man named Clifford Miller. From his home in Kent, this solicitor anonymously operated an anti-vaccine website laughably claiming to offer ‘reliable information on child health safety’.

This was misleading enough for a licensed professional. But around the web, Miller posted under his real name, endorsing the site he himself covertly operated and claiming it was ‘widely recognised as a reliable source’.

Miller’s main target was also me. He falsely claimed I ‘made up’ stories, had admitted my reports were ‘speculation’, was paid to write them by the drug industry, had interfered with litigation, tried to damage research and received secret government documents.

Through all this, Wendy was invaluable as a source. She sent me data garnered from emails from Miller that enabled me to detect the location on the internet from which they came — and prove that Miller was the author of the anonymous website.

Stott and Miller were early adopters of the abuse and deceptions that are now staples of anti-vaxxer tactics on social media. And also in Wendy’s gaze was a ‘writer’, one Martin Walker, who attended months of Wakefield’s GMC hearing.

Emails obtained for me by Wendy revealed that Walker was being paid by activists, including ‘generous vaccine damage campaigners in the United States’.

And thanks to Wendy, I also learnt that Walker was filing ‘reports’ about the GMC hearing to anti-vaccine parents which bore no resemblance to what was actually going on there.

Walker assured readers that the case against Wakefield looked likely to fail, and falsely claimed the chairman of a five-member disciplinary panel had a financial conflict of interest.

Then there were complaints to all and sundry about me that were filed by one mother involved with the Lancet research: a longstanding anti- vaccine campaigner.

Wendy says: ‘I used to think the only organisation she didn’t approach to put you in the s*** with was the Cats Protection League.’

I cite these examples because they reveal the kind of people at the core of the anti-vaccine movement.

Typifying a toxic mix of malice, smear and stupidity, another NAI member betrayed by Wendy sank yet farther into the mud.

After seeing a video I had posted on YouTube about a Channel 4 Dispatches film I’d made years before, he went to the police bizarrely claiming it was evidence that I was a paedophile.

So, for all that and more, I am humbled by Wendy’s work.

She has proved to be a great public servant; a conduit for truth. And I believe that in truth lies freedom.

To come forward now, when her role can be revealed, and face the ire of those she watched target me, is a courageous act from which countless parents of young children may benefit.

Looking back, she remembers all the vulnerable ‘lovely people’, the fellow parents she met in courtrooms and discussions over the years as they searched for what was best for their children.

But she also dwells on the lies and manipulation that are at the heart of the anti-vaccine movement.

‘You weren’t looking for that level of duplicity in a parents’ group,’ she says.

‘It sounds crazy, but I really hope that some of those parents who are still wandering about out there will read your book and find out the truth of what happened.’

The Doctor Who Fooled the World is published by Scribe and, later this month, by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Brian Deer is on Twitter @deerbrian