Like many of us, Dr. Peter Hotez is spending a lot of time at home these days, staying in with his wife, adult daughter and cat in an attempt to avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus. But Hotez, professor and co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine is also working flat out on two important fronts: developing vaccines for use against the new virus and speaking out in the media; he and his research have been referenced or quoted in more than 9,800 articles so far about the scientific and public health responses.
Between teleconferences with colleagues in Asia and Europe and a steady stream of interviews with journalists, the physician-scientist’s workday generally starts by 5 a.m. and extends into the night. And he’s doing it all from what’s become a hot spot for the virus: the Greater Houston area, where cases and hospitalizations are rising sharply. (Texas Children’s is now admitting adult patients to provide additional hospital capacity.)
The pandemic surprised most Americans. Not Hotez.
“We already had SARS, we already had MERS, and it was just a matter of time before there was another coronavirus,” he says, referring to the two severe respiratory illnesses that became household names in 2003 and 2012 respectively — and are also caused by coronaviruses. While SARS and MERS infected many fewer people than the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, they were “two major epidemics on the verge of (becoming) pandemics,” he says. There was no reason why another wouldn’t emerge, which is why he and his colleagues started developing a SARS vaccine about a decade ago — work that is now helping their fight against COVID-19.
Hotez says there will likely be many different types of vaccines developed to combat the new coronavirus, using different approaches. He, together with his longtime colleague, Maria Elena Bottazzi, and their teams at Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor have partnered with PATH, a global public health nonprofit, to accelerate low-cost COVID-19 vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. “There’s an urgent need to develop a vaccine (in those countries) at low cost,” he says.
To that end, his team is using a less expensive approach (developing recombinant protein vaccines in yeast) that is already used for the hepatitis B vaccine produced in countries including Brazil and India. A vaccine produced this way could also be used in the U.S. and other wealthier countries, but Hotez wants to be sure that the needs of resource-poor nations and populations are not overlooked amid the pandemic.
Hotez’s focus on how disease affects people in poverty is not new. For decades he’s been working to develop vaccines for neglected diseases of poverty (including things like hookworm and schistosomiasis), which cause a tremendous burden of illness, suffering and lost productivity in the developing world. Hotez has devoted much of his career to fighting them, including joining similar-minded colleagues to raise awareness of how these diseases affect not only people living in developing countries, but people in the U.S. living in poverty as well, particularly on the Gulf Coast.
He’s also strongly and publicly advocated for vaccinations in the face of a vocal anti-vaccination movement. (The title of his 2018 book, “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism,” refers to his own daughter, who was diagnosed with the condition as a young child.) In January he published an op-ed in the New York Times that said vaccine hesitancy — delaying or refusing available vaccines — was helping fuel the return of measles, deaths from the flu and cervical cancer.
Now he’s speaking out about the COVID-19 pandemic in his own area and nationwide. Hotez has been a frequent fixture of CNN and MSNBC, and he is prolific on Twitter, with north of 62,000 followers. Recently he sounded a grim warning on the social media platform: “We’re facing a stark realization that even after our horrible March April of 2020 we are not done with #COVID19. In fact things look like they (will) get much worse. Without aggressive intervention I don’t see how this improves. This will be a summer of great instability in America.”
He’s concerned that Houston and other hot spots could be overwhelmed by cases. “My worry is that one of the big metro areas could potentially start to resemble what we saw in New York in the spring,” he says. He hopes there’s a political appetite to reimplement social distancing and pare back openings where necessary. (In Harris County, which includes Houston, a new stay-at-home advisory took effect on Friday, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has reinstituted statewide restrictions on some businesses, including closing bars and reducing restaurant capacity.)
Hotez worries that like other diseases he has worked to curtail, this one will hit hardest people who live in poverty and have spotty access to health care and public health information. Many people who aren’t wearing masks just haven’t gotten adequate information, while others are victims of “terrible misinformation campaigns,” often online, he says. Some of the same groups that advocate loudly against vaccines are now doing so against social distancing, masks and contact tracing, he says.
But he doesn’t think yelling back is a good response. Nor is dismissing people’s fears. “I speak to people who don’t want to wear masks the same way as I do to parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids,” he says. Often, when he gives people accurate scientific information addressing their specific concerns it’s the first time anyone has done so, he explains.
Earlier this year he published a perspective piece called “Combating Antiscience: Are We Preparing for the 2020s?” In it, he “loosely” defines the antiscience movement as “organized and funded rejection[s] of science and scientific principles” that often go hand in hand with “targeting or harassment of individual scientists.”
One antidote — particularly as the pandemic continues to heat up — is for scientists to communicate more broadly about their work and to be more publicly visible, he says. It’s a role he continues to take on.
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Dr. Peter Hotez Combats Antiscience While Working on a Coronavirus Vaccine originally appeared on usnews.com