Dr. Peter Hotez joins CareTalk to discuss the anti-science culture that has developed in recent years and how it’s impacting our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Hotez explains how the anti-vaccine movement is based on misinformation and fearmongering. The result is a dangerous impact on public health that puts everyone at risk, not just those who are unvaccinated.
Dr. Hotez also talks about how social media is playing a role in spreading this misinformation. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are amplified the voices of those who peddle conspiracy theories and false information. This makes it difficult for people to know what to believe, and it’s contributing to the spread of COVID-19.
Watch the full episode below:
Here are the highlights from the episode:
| What is anti-science?
Well, it's a broad term and I use it to refer to this rise in advocacy and propaganda that seeks to discredit major scientific concepts, seeks to discredit, and I use it in the biomedical sense more than anything else right now, seeks to discredit vaccines, vaccinations, tries to claim they're unsafe or they don't work, and also conspiracy theories around the origins of COVID, and it's not only targeting the science but, and what's also kind of new and twisted is targeting prominent US biomedical scientists and seeking to discredit them and their comments. And I use it in the sense that it's not the way it's often portrayed, as kind of random bumps that happen on the internet or on social media, but in fact, it's quite organized. And now we know something about its organization at the highest levels of members of US Congress, the Senate and the House, some of the courts and amplified nightly especially on Fox News and other conservative news outlets.
Peter, the thing that's striking to me about the anti-science, anti-vax movement, which you with your gentle authority push back on, is it's actually got a pretty long history. Any insights, I mean, is this just something that's part of any innovation in medicine or like, what's the background here?
I mean, if you look at the founding even of the original colonies in the United States, there was always this concept of health freedom, medical freedom, that resented unwarranted government interference and often tend to promote spectacular cures, and this goes back more than 200 years. But in more modern times it really started accelerating beginning in the 2000s, around false links claiming that vaccines caused autism. And that's how I got involved with it on the biomedical side, because I have four adult kids, including Rachel who has autism and intellectual disabilities. And a few years ago I wrote a book with a very straightforward title, "Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism," to counter all of the false assertions, you know, and went into detail, showing the evidence, there's no link between vaccines and autism, what autism is, how it begins early, in early fetal brain development. We even did whole exome genomic sequencing on Rachel and my wife and I, we identified Rachel's autism gene, similar to the hundred others that have been found. And I think that was important to debunk a lot of that. But of course it also made me public enemy number one or two. They began calling me the OG villain which I had to look up, the original gangster villain. So John, you have the original gangster villain on your podcast to today. But what's happened now over the last seven, eight years, that thread still exists, no question about it, but it's morphed a bit to become more of a political movement, that, more of that old school idea of health freedom, medical freedom, you can't tell us what to do. And it really accelerated in the Southern States and the Conservative states, red states, especially in Texas, became the epicenter of that. And that's what's kind of new. It got adopted by the Republican Tea Party under the banner of health freedom, medical freedom. Historically, there's nothing really anti-science about the Republican Party but this is kind of new and twisted, and that's what we're dealing with now in this time of COVID-19, where there was open expression of anti-vaccine statements claiming they're unsafe or they don't work from members of the House Freedom Caucus out of the House of Representatives. Some senators like Rand Paul, and then it got amplified nightly by the night time Fox News anchors, and then they recruited a whole group of contrary and intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals to give it academic cover coming from far-right think tanks or in some cases, even major medical centers. And the point is, it's not just an academic discussion, it's cost lives and in my new book that I'm working on with the working title, "Anti-science Kills," I estimate that more than 200,000 unvaccinated Americans in the last half of 2021 needlessly lost their lives 'cause of allegiance to this thing by refusing to take a COVID vaccine, and so when we talk about the big social forces that we put up infrastructure against like global terrorism or cyber attacks or nuclear proliferation, this anti-science, whatever you call it, political ecosystem or empire, is killing more Americans than all those things combined and it's the hardest thing I've ever had to talk about John because all of my training as a physician scientist, said you're not really supposed to talk about Republicans and Democrats and Liberals or Conservatives or red states and blue states, we're supposed to be politically neutral, and above all that, but what do you do when all of this is clearly falling along a partisan divide? And I still haven't figured out the best way to talk about it. I just say, look, I haven't figured out a way to talk about it other than to talk about it with the hope that it makes people understand what's going on to save lives.
| What is Corbevax and when will it be available?
So my day job is, I'm a pediatric vaccine scientist and I'm a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, and I co-lead a group with my science partner for the last 20 years, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, and we lead a group that develops vaccines for poverty-related parasitic infections like schistosomiasis and hookworm, I call them the most important diseases you've never heard of, Chagas disease. But then about 10 years ago we started developing coronavirus vaccines 'cause they were orphan too. We developed SARS and MERS vaccines, and now we've been able to turn that around and pivot to begin making a COVID vaccine, which we did and we were able to turn that around and then we licensed it with no patent to several vaccine producers in low, middle-income countries, and our colleagues in India, known as Biological E, have produced this vaccine that they named CORBEVAX, like Biological E, C-O-R-B-E-V-A-X, and so far, it's gone into 70 million arms, adolescent arms in India, and now it's been approved as an adult booster so it shows that you don't have to necessarily work through Big Pharma companies to do big things in terms of making vaccines and there's, you know, trying to find, it's not that the pharma companies necessarily are bad guys, they do a lot of good, but to rely exclusively on the pharma companies means that we'll have vaccine equity issues and so we did this to address vaccine equity.
I think maybe stepping back a little bit, Peter, I think it seems kind of obvious, but vaccines are one of the greatest inventions in humanity in terms of allowing humans to thrive, whether it's the elimination of smallpox, the relative elimination of measles, the power of a small prick in the arm to actually transform, turn your body into effectively a defensive device against invasive disease is probably one of the greatest inventions, I'm just trying to think of anything else that comes close.
No, I think so, and this is why I became a biomedical scientist, developing vaccines for, developing vaccines for poverty-related diseases. I totally agree with you. I did my MD and PhD in New York at Rockefeller University and Wild Cornell Medical College, and the motto of Rockefeller, which used to be the Rockefeller Institute for Medical research, translates from the Latin, is science for the benefit of humankind and that's why I went there, to do things to help humanity and there's no better, I agree, there's no better way to do that than making impactful vaccines and I always thought of this as something noble and so this is what's been so hard also is to see this flip on its side, you know, 180 degrees and people claiming it's something nefarious about it when it's saving so many lives, both in the US and globally, so this has taken a big personal toll on me, having all the attacks and everything else.
CareTalk is a weekly podcast that provides an incisive, no B.S. view of the US healthcare system. Join co-hosts John Driscoll (CEO, CareCentrix) and David Williams (President, Health Business Group) as they debate the latest in US healthcare news, business and policy.
ABOUT DR. PETER HOTEZ
Dr. Peter Hotez is an American scientist, pediatrician, and advocate in the fields of global health, vaccinology, and neglected tropical disease control. He serves as founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, where he is also Director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Texas Children's Hospital Endowed Chair in Tropical Pediatrics, and University Professor of Biology at Baylor College of Medicine.
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