The doctor who linked the MMR vaccination to autism is to be investigated for alleged professional misconduct, it emerged last night.
Dr Andrew Wakefield, whose research suggesting the link prompted one of Britain's biggest health scares, is to be interviewed by the General Medical Council (GMC) this week.
John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, had called for the investigation as a "matter of urgency" after it emerged that the doctor had failed to declare a financial interest when he submitted his research for publication. The Government, however, is pressure to order a full independent inquiry into how the research was carried out, funded and published.
The editor of The Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, admitted that the research would not have been published if it had been known that Dr Wakefield was also working for lawyers preparing a legal action by parents who believed that the jab had caused their children's autism. Hesaid the disclosure, admitted by Dr Wakefield, amounted to a "fatal conflict of interest" and that his key finding was "entirely flawed".
The author's research fund received £55,000 from the Legal Aid Board for studies on 10 children suspected as having been damaged by vaccines. Four of the children were also used in the controversial study that linked the vaccination against mumps, measles and rubella to autism, it was admitted last night.
Other allegations, that the research was biased and did not have proper ethical approval, have been rejected by the journal and the Royal Free Hospital in London, where the research was carried out.
Dr Wakefield described the criticism as a "witch-hunt". He said: "I stand by the findings reported in The Lancet. We have identified important illness in children and raised important questions about child health."
A statement released by the hospital said Dr Wakefield, who left his post two years ago, should have declared the interest, but defended the other researchers involved.
A spokeswoman for the GMC said: "We are concerned by these allegations and will be looking at what action, if any, may be necessary." Investigators would be seeking to speak to Dr Wakefield in the coming days, she added.
Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said the GMC inquiry could not answer questions about why legal aid money was paid out, or how the study was given ethical approval and published. "The Lancet and the Royal Free have taken just two days to investigate and acquit themselves," he said.
Jackie Fletcher, of the campaign group Jabs, said Dr Wakefield may have been the target of a smear campaign. "They seem to go all out to criticise the messenger," she said.