‘A deadly societal force’: A Q&A with author Dr. Peter Hotez on the anti-science movement

Peter Hotez at podium

Michael Stravato for Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

Scientist and researcher Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, has just published his fifth book, “The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science: A Scientist’s Warning,” on the global assault on science, vaccines, and scientists, which he considers a threat to democracy in the United States.

Hotez is a professor in the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and codirector of the Texas Childrens Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, both in Houston. He spoke with CIDRAP News yesterday about the anti-vaccine movement’s growth into an organized, well-funded movement that he says is the signature of an authoritarian regime.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CIDRAP News: What was your impetus for writing the book?

Peter Hotez: I’ve been going up against the anti-vaccine movement in the United States for decades. It started because I have a daughter with autism and wrote the book, ‘Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism.’ It wound up making me Public Enemy No. 1 or 2 with anti-vaccine groups, but it also gave me a front-row seat to understanding what this movement was all about.

And then I watched as over time, false claims that vaccines cause autism became secondary to this 2.0 version of the anti-vaccine movement, which became more of a political enterprise and, in some cases, a form of extremism on the far right. It was especially apparent down here in Texas, where anti-vaccine groups started getting PAC [political action committee] money from the far right around this banner of health and medical freedom, which was a propaganda tool.

Over time, false claims that vaccines cause autism became secondary to this 2.0 version of the anti-vaccine movement, which became more of a political enterprise and, in some cases, a form of extremism on the far right."

The major reason for the book was the fact that now it was no longer a theoretical or academic entity. During the Delta [SARS-CoV-2 variant] wave, my estimate is 40,000 Texans needlessly died—200,000 Americans—because they refused COVID vaccines in the Delta wave in the last half of 2021 and the BA.1 wave in early 2022. They were victims of what too often we call ‘misinformation’ or the ‘infodemic.’ I don’t like those terms because it implies that it’s just some random junk on the internet. It wasn’t that at all.

We need to find a way to decouple it from anti-vaccine aggression, because it’s accelerating. It’s not only COVID vaccines; you’re starting to see this spill over into all childhood immunizations. It’s globalizing, and now it’s targeting not only science but scientists. These groups blame the vaccines themselves or say scientists created the COVID virus. I can’t think of a time when we’ve seen that before in US history.

CIDRAP News: When did science and scientists begin to lose credibility with some people?

Anti-vax protesters
GoToRon / Flickr cc

Peter Hotez: In terms of biomedical science, I benchmark it as summer 2021, at the CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference]. The rhetoric was, ‘First they’ll vaccinate you, and then they’ll take away your guns and Bibles.’

Then the House Freedom Caucus called people like me who vaccinate ‘medical brown shirts,’ using Nazi paramilitary analogies. You had Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who led vaccine-injury roundtables, and Senator Rand Paul [of Kentucky] and Governor [Ron] DeSantis of Florida, all amplified by Fox News. This was documented by Media Matters and ETH Zurich, which described the Delta wave, when so many Americans died because they refused vaccines, when they were 90% effective in preventing severe illness or death.

Fox news anchors Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity filled their broadcasts with anti-vaccine content. Those broadcasts had 3 million viewers each, and so every night, people believed what they were hearing, and they paid for it with their lives. The numbers showed that overwhelmingly, deaths associated with low vaccination occurred in Republican states, so much so that David Leonhardt of the New York Times called it ‘Red COVID.’ It’s a very dark chapter to have anti-science, anti-vaccine activism adopted by elected leaders—by an extreme element of a major political party—and it is a killing machine.

I became a vaccine scientist because I saw that as one of the highest expressions of science. The second part now is countering this anti-vaccine activism that has caused so much devastation. And it’s tough, because now you’re the public enemy of the far right, and those guys play hardball.

CIDRAP News: Why have some physicians also spread this propaganda?

Peter Hotez: There’s a spectrum. The most egregious ones are really scary, the ones who actively promote anti-vaccine viewpoints. They’re COVID minimalists and deniers, and it’s especially unnerving when they’re at academic health centers like Stanford Medical School and Johns Hopkins Medical School. Even though they’re not specialists in infectious diseases or virology, the general public doesn’t know that; they just see them as prominent physicians at prestigious medical centers, so that is extremely damaging.

CIDRAP News: What do scientists need to do to get back their credibility and fight this misinformation?

Peter Hotez: The health sector doesn’t really know what to do. We’ve never dealt with something like this. So you’ll see US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy—and I think the world of him—talk about social media companies and how they switch the computer algorithms, or some pro-vaccine groups try to get out positive messages. We need to do that, but a big piece of this is a politically driven anti-vaccine, anti-science ecosystem. To counter it, we need to seek help from people outside the health sector.

I’ve said to the Biden administration that we need to bring in the Homeland Security, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, to help us figure this out, because physician scientists are not going to be able by themselves to counter something like Fox News, the House Freedom Caucus, or prominent US senators.

We also need to bring in the Department of State, because foreign actors like the Russian government are using disinformation to destabilize our democracy. The Russians are flooding our internet with bots and trolls that are both pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine, because they have a different agenda.

Generally, the response of the health and human services agencies is nonexistent or fumbling, same as from the scientific societies; we don’t really see vigorous support. Even if they have trouble dealing with this politically motivated thing, at least I’d like to see more backing of the scientists who are under attack, and we’re not hearing that either, and that’s going to be very important.

We need to create a new enterprise like the Southern Poverty Law Center for protecting science and scientists, because when you’re under attack—especially from Congress—it’s a very lonely place, and the backing of academic health centers varies.

CIDRAP News: Why do you think you’re not seeing that support?

Peter Hotez: One, they see how people like me get beat up, and who wants that? But more than that, we’re so committed to political neutrality that we don’t talk about it, but at some point you’ve got to say, to paraphrase Elie Wiesel, ‘At what point does neutrality favor the tormentor?’ And there are practical reasons. The national academies of medicine and science depend on Congressional support. But we’ve got to figure out a way around it.

We need to create a new enterprise like the Southern Poverty Law Center for protecting science and scientists, because when you’re under attack—especially from Congress—it’s a very lonely place, and the backing of academic health centers varies. In my case, I’m lucky. What kind of assistance can we give scientists under attack?

CIDRAP News: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

Woman receiving vaccine
CDC / Lauren Bishop

Peter Hotez: Goal Number 1 is to educate people as to how the anti-vaccine movement has become politically engaged and powerful. I think people still think of the anti-vaccine movement as grassroots and don’t understand that this is a deadly societal force. Point two, I want them to understand that this is not going away.

Now, even after 200,000 Americans have needlessly perished, you’re seeing a doubling down in efforts to revise history. You’re seeing this in the House hearings right now, from prominent scientists in front of C-SPAN cameras. And there’s historical precedent for this. This is what [Soviet political leader Joseph] Stalin did during the 1930s: imprison Mendelian geneticists in favor of [Trofim] Lysenko [who claimed genes were a ‘bourgeois invention’], even though it destroyed the wheat crop and caused widespread famine that killed 2 to 3 million Soviet peasants.

Lastly, we’ve started to see the same US-style anti-vaccine activism not only in places like Canada and Europe but even in the low- and middle-income countries, where it’s affecting malaria vaccine uptake, for instance. This is a monster, and the point of the book was we can’t take it on unless we know what we’re dealing with.


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