Reflecting On COVID-19 And A Growing Public Health Threat
As the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines continues, Peter Hotez, a faculty fellow with the Hagler Institute of Advanced Studies at Texas A&M University, says he’s optimistic that “we are going to vaccinate our way out of the epidemic.”
At the same time, he’s concerned about another growing problem – public distrust of vaccines and anti-science ideology. Hotez, a dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine who co-directs a vaccine-development center at Texas Children’s Hospital, argues that it’s a dangerous movement reaching the level of nuclear proliferation, terrorism and other issues the United States has put infrastructure in place to combat.
In a recent virtual talk hosted by the School of Public Health, Hotez drew on lessons from the his work in tropical infectious diseases and his time as an envoy focusing on vaccine diplomacy initiatives during the President Barack Obama administration. In the past year, he’s been prominently featured in the national media as an expert on the pandemic.
Hotez spoke frankly about his role in combatting anti-science, which has become a major focus of his.
“As public health experts, this is becoming a bigger and bigger problem,” Hotez said.
For Hotez, the anti-vaccine movement in particular is personal. In 2018, he wrote and published a book titled “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism” about his adult daughter, Rachel, who has autism and intellectual disabilities. Hotez said his attempts at dispelling claims that autism spectrum disorders are linked to vaccines has made him a target of anti-vaccine groups.
These groups have re-energized in recent years as a political movement, linked in particular to the conservative Tea Party, he says. With the help of political action committees, conservative podcasters and talking heads, and major think tanks, anti-vaccine thinking has become politicized under the banner of “medical freedom.” With the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-vaccine groups have also protested masks and physical distancing.
Hotez said the increase in COVID-19 cases last summer in southern states and in the northern Midwest can partly be blamed on the anti-science movement. He offered several examples of how this ideology spreads, particularly through the targeting of specific ethnic groups like the Somali immigrant community in Minneapolis and the Orthodox Jewish community. What was once a “fringe element” in the Republican Party is becoming more and more mainstream, Hotez said.
He cited a recent move by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who took aim at government-required “vaccine passports” in an executive order.
“Really, nobody’s talking about this. It’s just kind of a straw man that’s been created to galvanize, I think, the political right, but it’s happening at the expense of vaccines, and I’m quite concerned about this,” Hotez said.
Hotez, a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, also has affiliations with the School of Public Health and the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. He took time during his virtual discussion to debunk some common vaccine myths.
No one COVID-19 vaccine is better than another, he said, and it’s not worth waiting for the development and rollout of a new vaccine.
“They all work by introducing virus-neutralizing antibodies to the spike protein,” Hotez said. “I always say it’s not worth the wait. Get what you can.”
Young people are still becoming infected, he said, and need to be vaccinated. And despite claims that the COVID-19 vaccines were “rushed” and could be unsafe, Hotez said they were built off of more than 10 years of previous research and development efforts.
The epidemic is changing, and the UK variant is becoming “fairly dominant,” he said. The good news is that all available COVID-19 vaccines are working just as well against the UK variant, which Hotez said gives him “cause for optimism.” Later in the year and in 2022, though, a variant coming out of South Africa and Brazil could be a concern.
Looking back on the COVID-19 pandemic, Hotez said he’s interested in trying to understand how science can be better communicated to a lay audience.
“If there’s any silver lining on this pandemic,” he said, it’s that “now people are hearing from scientists and public health experts directly” in a way they never have before. Two major errors health experts made in the last year, particularly coming from the White House, were the tendency to lapse into jargon and talk down to the American people, Hotez said.
People don’t mind listening to complex topics, and often want to hear directly from scientists rather than journalists and pundits. Hotez said when he is able to return to the Texas A&M campus he’d like to work with students on lessons learned regarding public health and science communications during the pandemic.
One thing Hotez has learned from COVID-19 is that it’s sometimes necessary for public health experts “to get [their] hands dirty now and then,” venture into political discussions and call out disinformation.
“It’s a minefield, and you have to be careful, but in some cases it’s necessary,” he said.
Media contact: Caitlin Clark, firstname.lastname@example.org