Vaccine Scientist Peter Hotez On Anti-Science Aggression
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I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Dr. Peter Hotez, who is Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. He is also Co-Director of the Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development, Texas Children's Hospital Endowed Chair of Tropical Pediatrics, and a University Professor at Baylor University. He is the author of four books, including his 2018 work Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism. He speaks frequently on television about vaccine disinformation and other public health issues. Our conversation took place on November 5, 2021, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): You write in your article on the medical freedom movement that the rejection of masks, vaccines, and public health protocols has come to symbolize allegiance to former President Donald Trump. Many people struggle to understand why a president and elected officials would take positions that endanger people and cost lives.
Peter Hotez (PH): It really began around 2015, when the anti-vaccine movement needed to reenergize because a number of us in the scientific community had debunked the fake claims that vaccines cause autism. And I got involved in that, because my youngest daughter, Rachel, has autism and intellectual disabilities. I wrote a book called Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism, which took some wind out of their sails. They made this really odd pivot in 2015, linking themselves to the Tea Party here in Texas and forming their own political action committees. And so it became a political movement on the far right. And then when the pandemic arrived in 2020, those same anti-vaccine groups started protesting masks and social distancing.
And now of course it's a full-court press to not take your vaccine as a sign of allegiance to the political Right. At the CPAC conference, members of the United States Congress said that vaccines are nothing more than political instruments of control. First they're going to come to your house to vaccinate you. Then they're going to take away your guns and your Bibles.
As ridiculous as that may sound, a significant percentage of the population accepts that and Senators and Governors in the red states work to discredit vaccines. What was this fringe far right element has become increasingly mainstream, and its talking points, meant to discredit vaccines, are echoed nightly on Fox News and other conservative news outlets.
And now we're starting to see the targeting of prominent US scientists. They go after Tony Fauci, and they go after me. I had Laura Ingraham on Fox News the other night, with the Governor of Florida, going after me. Being a vaccine scientists and being on the front lines in developing a COVID vaccine, but also being the lead target of anti-vaccine groups for years, I'm at the center of this reaction against science.
When I get threats, it's all about the army of Patriots. That's who's coming to get me. I say, I don't know why you need an army of Patriots, it's just me and Anne and Rachel and the cat. I think one Patriot or two Patriots is more than enough, but you know, this is what we're up against.
When I came across your writing, and the work of Anne Applebaum, I said, wait a minute, there's a bigger piece here. This is a component of authoritarian rule. And now they are cultivating their own cadre of pseudo intellectuals to provide an alternative narrative that vaccines are not great. It's a very scary and dark movement that troubles me to no end.
RBG: This is what I call the upside-down world of authoritarianism, when those who are trying to save our lives become the ones you're supposed to eliminate.
PH: I don't even call it anti-vaccine misinformation or disinformation anymore. I call it anti-science aggression. It's tough for someone like me to talk about it because our training as scientists says that we're supposed to keep our heads down and focus on the science. But there's nobody speaking out. We're not hearing from the professional societies, the academic societies, the national academies about this issue.
These are not mom and pop groups we’re up against. These are well-funded, well-organized political entities that are working to undermine the fundamental infrastructure of American science. And we've got to take a stand.
RBG: When you study the rise of Fascism, in fact, you see how professional, scientific, and historical academies all tried to remain "objective" until it was too late.
PH: I'm trying to get my colleagues to see that this goes beyond the expertise of the health sector. A hundred thousand Americans lost their lives over the summer from the Delta variant, despite the widespread availability of vaccines. These are people who have chosen to take their own lives and refuse vaccinations. So this is a killer.
We spend money to combat global terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and cyberattacks, but anti-science aggressions are now killing 10 times more Americans than any of those things combined. And we don't recognize them as a killing force.
I've recommended that we bring in people from Homeland Security and the State Department, because some of it's coming from the Russian government. What are the things that people did to combat global terrorism? Are there lessons learned that we can apply to this? So far, nobody's wanted to touch that.
RBG: You're a very clear communicator and I wonder what your thoughts are on how the Biden administration and the media might communicate differently on the subject of vaccines. For example, there is a persistent narrative that no one wants to take the vaccine and there are mass resignations from the public and private sectors, but then it turns out that it's a very small percentage of people who actually choose to stay unvaccinated and quit their jobs.
PH: I can't tell you the countless Zoom calls I've been on the last two years about amplifying the pro-vaccine message around COVID-19 vaccines. But we've got to go beyond that. We’ve got to dismantle the evil empire--meaning this aggression from the far right.
Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General, who's terrific, says we're going to crack down on Facebook and the social media companies. And I say, yes, sure. They're enabling anti-science aggression, but they are not the source. And that makes people very uncomfortable. It's too scary for people to want to take on.