|Directed by||Andrew Wakefield|
|Produced by||Del Bigtree|
|Distributed by||Cinema Libre Studio|
Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe is a 2016 American pseudoscience documentary film alleging a cover-up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of a purported link between the MMR vaccine and autism. According to Variety, the film "purports to investigate the claims of a senior scientist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who revealed that the CDC had allegedly manipulated and destroyed data on an important study about autism and the MMR vaccine"; critics derided it as an anti-vaccine propaganda film.
The film was directed by discredited anti-vaccine activist Andrew Wakefield, who was struck off the medical register in the United Kingdom in 2010 due to ethical violations related to his fraudulent research into the role of vaccines in autism. It was scheduled to premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival before being withdrawn by the festival. In reviewing the film, Indiewire said that "Wakefield doesn’t just have a dog in this fight; he is the dog".
In 1998 Wakefield published a study in The Lancet suggesting that the MMR vaccine caused autism. In 2010 the study was retracted, and Wakefield was struck off the medical register in the United Kingdom due to "ethical violations and a failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest" and for his invention of evidence linking the MMR vaccine to autism. A substantial body of subsequent research has established that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Wakefield went on to become a leader in the anti-vaccination movement that his discredited study helped create.
Del Bigtree, a producer of Vaxxed, was formerly a producer of The Doctors, a daytime US talk show. The British Medical Journal conducted a study on The Doctors and The Dr Oz Show and concluded with this warning about the shows: "Consumers should be skeptical about any recommendations provided ... as details are limited and only a third to one half of recommendations are based on believable or somewhat believable evidence".
According to Variety, the film "purports to investigate the claims of a senior scientist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who revealed that the CDC had allegedly manipulated and destroyed data on an important study about autism and the MMR vaccine." The film features the so-called "CDC whistleblower" narrative that is based on anti-vaccination activist and associate professor Brian Hooker's paper describing claims by senior CDC scientist William Thompson that he and his co-authors had omitted mention of a correlation they found between vaccination and autism in African-American boys in a CDC study. However a 2011 IOM report showed that evidence favors rejection of a relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism. The film contains edited excerpts of several phone calls between Hooker and Thompson recorded without Thompson's knowledge. Hooker's 2014 paper on the narrative was subsequently retracted due to "serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions" and in 2015 the CDC had confirmed that any such initial correlation had ceased to exist once they performed a more in-depth analysis of the children in the study.
These sometimes spliced-together unauthorized phone recordings of Thompson, according to the Houston Press, form the "crux of the entire movie... And...that's it". On the "CDC whistleblower" narrative, Philip LaRussa, a professor of paediatric medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, said the film-makers "were saying, there's this silver bullet here, and the CDC is hiding it, and no one else has looked at this issue, which is not the case". Thompson does not appear in the film and did not see it before it was released. Thompson had released a statement on the controversy in 2014 which the New York Times discussed in its coverage of Vaxxed; the Times described it as "saying that while he questioned the 2004 study's presentation of some data, he would never advise people not to get vaccinated."
Premiere and distribution
The film had been scheduled to premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival but this was the subject of public outcry and widespread criticism, particularly for allowing Wakefield to distribute his discredited theories. Actor Robert De Niro, who co-founded the festival, initially defended the decision to show the film, writing on Facebook that the film was "very personal" to him due to him having a child with autism, and saying that he hoped the film would open a dialog about the controversy. But shortly before the evening of March 26 De Niro announced that the film would not screen, stating that consultation with other film festival representatives, and members of the scientific community, had led him to conclude that screening the film would not contribute to or further the discussion of the topic presented.
After the film was dropped from the Tribeca Film Festival, it was picked up for distribution by Cinema Libre. The film premiered at the Angelika Film Center in New York City on April 1, 2016 to an audience of "a few dozen".
In reaction to Cinema Libre's decision to distribute the film, Todd Drezner, the father of an autistic son and creator of a neurodiversity-themed movie that was distributed by Cinema Libre, wrote an open letter to Cinema Libre criticizing Vaxxed and Cinema Libre's decision to distribute it, writing: "By releasing Vaxxed, Cinema Libre is actively harming thousands of autistic people. While we should be discussing ways to best support autistic people and help them lead fulfilling lives, you would instead have us follow a discredited scientist and dishonest filmmaker down a rabbit hole that leads only to long-debunked conspiracy theories. I am profoundly disappointed."
The film was given a private screening in Cannes in 2017 while the Cannes Film Festival was underway, and at that time Cinema Libre said that it had earned $1.2 million and that they had signed distribution deals in Italy, Germany, Poland, and China.
This section contains too many or too-lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (March 2017)
Documentary director Penny Lane stated:
Issues around truth and ethics in documentary can get thorny. But this one is easy. This film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the 'vaccines cause autism' hoax; this film is directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.
A review by the health and science news-site Medical Daily states:
[Vaxxed] doesn't care about convincing its audience with evidence. Instead, Wakefield, Hooker, and producer Del Bigtree run the viewer through a well-trod gauntlet of emotional pleas, context-free statistics ... and shadowy conspiracies, with Bigtree claiming that "all of television" has been bought out by the pharmaceutical industry.— Ed Cara, the Medical Daily.
Independent film news-site Indiewire concludes the film pushes an outrageous agenda, and says:
Wakefield's by-the-numbers approach to didactic storytelling relies on tons of random factoids positioned out of context to drive home his agenda. An end credit declares that "every seven minutes, a child in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism," the kind of tenuous data set that passes for hard evidence in Wakefield's bizarro universe.— Eric Kohn, Indiewire.
The film's review in Variety magazine describes it as a "slickly produced but scientifically dubious hodgepodge of free-floating paranoia" and warns of its:
anti-Big Pharma conspiracy mongering ... [which] too often resembles the kind of one-sided, paranoia-stoking agitprop that political activists construct to sanctify true believers and assault infidels. [Vaxxed] should be taken with several grains of industrial-strength salt.— Joe Leydon, Film Critic Variety.
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle was described by Ariana Eun Cha as giving a "generous" review and said that he "appeared to be moved by the footage and personal stories of the children and their parents." He wrote:
The vast majority of people who see this film will not have the scientific knowledge to assess the film's veracity. But it's fair to say that the documentary, though characterized as antivaccination, isn't quite that. The point of view is more nuanced. It's against the vaccination of children ages 2 and younger. And it's particularly against the MMR — that is, the giving of three vaccines at once ... it's a passionate advocate for its viewpoint, and that makes for compelling viewing.... Of course, it's possible that the children would have developed autism anyway, and that one event didn't cause the other. But the parents presented here are convinced otherwise.
Pediatrician Philip LaRussa wrote that "Wakefield's film acts as if his research had not been revealed as fraudulent":
[Wakefield] didn't mention the fact that he lost his license in Great Britain, he didn't mention the fact that  of his co-authors withdrew their names from his paper. He didn't mention the fact that there was a series of investigative articles by [Sunday Times journalist] Brian Deer. None of that existed in this film.— Vaxxed: an expert view on controversial film about vaccines and autism.
The Booker, Wakefield and Bigtree segments are spliced with testimonials from parents describing their own ordeals with late-onset autism, which only points to another insidious aspect of Wakefield's fraud. These interviews are heartbreaking. There may be few tragedies as great as a parent watching a child's future rapidly contract. But it's another tragedy altogether to give these desperate mothers and fathers this straw at which to grasp.— Pete Vonder Haar, Houston Press.
David Gorski calls the film's 'CDC whistleblower' affair "the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement" and in response asks:
... How on earth did this documentary full of antivaccine lies ... get into Tribeca?
The Age newspaper critiques Wakefield's film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe and states:
It's not a stretch to say that the title of this new film could well describe the shenanigans of Wakefield himself in the late `90s – the cover-up being the secret contract with lawyers who paid him to construct a case against the MMR, and the catastrophe, of course, the worldwide slump in vaccination... There is something profoundly ironic about Wakefield pointing to the commercial interests of the pharmaceutical industry or accusing the CDC of data manipulation when you consider his own undisclosed financial interests behind the 1998 Lancet study and his role in what has been called one of the most flagrant frauds in medical history.— Sarah Gill, The Age, Melbourne Australia.
In October 2017, the Science Moms documentary was released, partially to provide a counterpoint to the anti-vaccination stance of Vaxxed. Per its director, it "focuses on providing a science and evidence-based counter-narrative to the pseudoscience-based parenting narrative that has cropped up in recent years."
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