The journal’s editors said it was not possible Wakefield made a mistake but must have falsified the data for his study, which convinced thousands of parents that vaccines are dangerous and which is blamed for ongoing outbreaks of measles and mumps.
The journal, commonly nicknamed the BMJ, supported its position with a series of articles by a journalist who used medical records and interviews to show that Wakefield falsified data.
For instance, the reports found that Wakefield, who included data from only 12 children in his report, studied at least 13 and that several showed symptoms of autism before having been vaccinated.
Fears that vaccines might cause autism have not only caused parents to skip vaccinating their children, but have forced costly reformulations of many vaccines.
“Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield,” BMJ editor Dr Fiona Godlee and colleagues wrote in a commentary.
In 1998, The Lancet medical journal published a study by Wakefield and colleagues linking the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism.
The other researchers later withdrew their names from the study and The Lancet formally retracted the paper in February.
Wakefield denied the allegations. “The study is not a lie. The findings that we have made have been replicated in five countries around the world,” Wakefield told CNN television.
A disciplinary panel of the General Medical Council said last February that Wakefield had presented his research in an “irresponsible and dishonest” way and had brought the medical profession into disrepute.
Godlee and colleagues said the work “was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud”.
“Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare,” they added.
Many experts have tried to show that vaccines might cause autism. Newer suspicions have focussed on thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once used in many vaccines and since removed from childhood vaccines.
But no studies have shown any clear link. The US Institute of Medicine has issued several reports saying not only is there no evidence of a link, but urging researchers to look elsewhere for possible causes of autism.
Measles is one of the most contagious viruses known, infecting 10 million people a year and killing 164,000, according to the World Health Organisation.
Vaccination has reduced the number of measles deaths by 78%, WHO says. But refusal by some to get children vaccinated has helped fuel a resurgence.