Peter J. Hotez (MD, PhD) is internationally known for his public science advocacy, having taken on anti-vax groups’ attempts to connect autism with vaccines and, more recently, for combating misinformation about fighting COVID. He regularly appears on major news shows and in print media and maintains an active presence on Twitter. In his forthcoming book, The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science: How Health Freedom Propaganda Endangers the World, Hotez estimates that 200,000 Americans needlessly lost their lives from COVID during the last half of 2021 alone, which he largely blames on propaganda from the far right.
An expert on neglected tropical diseases, Dr. Hotez is dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of pediatrics and molecular virology & microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. He’s also codirector of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development and holds numerous fellowships related to medical ethics and health policy, including in disease and poverty at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. He is the codirector of Parasites Without Borders, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith International.
Hotez, whose ancestors on his father’s side came from Galicia (now southeastern Poland and western Ukraine) grew up in a Jewish family in West Hartford, Connecticut. I recently spoke to him about the COVID vaccine he developed for low- and middle-income countries, his passion for “science tikkun,” and about the antisemitism that’s now a virulent strain of anti-science ideology.
The Anti-Defamation League presented you with the 2021 Milton S. Popkin Award, recognizing your efforts to combat antisemitism and its links to the anti-vaccine movement. Can you talk about those links and how it became a political force?
The anti-vaccine movement started with false assertions that vaccines cause autism, and that revved up in the early 2000s. Then, about ten years ago, it pivoted to become a political movement linked to the Republican Tea Party’s concept of health freedom, or medical freedom. That’s when the first anti-vaccine political action committees were set up in Texas and other states to support far-right candidates who pushed health freedom propaganda, mostly linked to vaccines. During COVID-19, the movement expanded beyond childhood vaccinations to COVID vaccinations and other COVID prevention measures. That’s when it gained a lot of political strength and when you started to see the health freedom/medical freedom movement adopted by the House Freedom Caucus in the U.S. Congress, amplified on Fox News by senators like Rand Paul and Ron Johnson. Every night Fox News was spewing out rhetoric claiming vaccines were not effective or they weren’t safe. You started to see the white nationalist Proud Boys marching at anti-vaccine rallies. And, in fact, the first arrests in the January 6th insurrection included anti-vaccine activists. There became a very tight link between far-right extremism and anti-vaccine/anti-science rhetoric.
And with that came antisemitism?
Antisemitism was always part of the far right, and here it manifested in two forms: One, there were direct antisemitic threats against Jewish doctors and Jewish scientists. More commonly, however, anti-vaxxers were invoking Nazi-era imagery and statements…kind of to mess with your head. These people would not only compare vaccines to the Holocaust but would claim that vaccines were a violation of agreements made at Nuremberg, along with requests to see doctors hanged or executed after Nuremberg-style trials. They would compare people like myself or Anthony Fauci to Josef Mengele. So, there were direct antisemitic threats, but it was more commonly the heavy use of Nazi imagery that I interpreted as a form of intimidation.
Intimidation to what end? Is this tied to the antisemitic conspiracy theories asserting that Jews unleashed the virus and created vaccines to protect only Jewish people, or that the vaccine is being pushed on non-Jews as some sinister form of control?
I’m glad you brought that up. It’s the third element, which is that the Jews were behind either creating COVID or creating COVID vaccines, which are dangerous. On social media and in emails, I get accused of plotting to make the virus because I’m Jewish. The fact is, a lot of vaccine scientists are Jewish, so conspiracy theorists make that leap.
And who stands to gain from bringing neo-Nazi groups into vaccine conspiracy theories and the anti-vaccine movement?
I see it as part of a form of authoritarian control. If you read commentary by NYU historian and cultural critic Ruth Ben-Ghiat or the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, you can see this goes by the authoritarian playbook—to portray both science and scientists as enemies of the state. It’s part of the larger attack on the intelligentsia. And if you go back to Hannah Arendt and the origins of totalitarianism, this is very much by that playbook as well. And by the way, Putin makes Nazi allegations and also discredits vaccines. I mean, this goes back to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s during the Great Purge, sending scientists to gulags and so on.
I think the end game is to discredit. Part of the way you gain power and control is discrediting science, scientists and scientific institutions. Anything that actually has verifiable truth is ultimately a threat to lies and misstatements, and so I think science is part of the cannon fodder of a larger attempt at authoritarian control. The fact that the far right basically encouraged a whole section of the United States living in red states and red counties to believe that vaccines are dangerous claimed lives on a massive scale. The estimate I come up with in my forthcoming book [The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science: How Health Freedom Propaganda Endangers the World] is that 200,000 Americans needlessly lost their lives during the last half of 2021 alone, after vaccines became widely available but because they refused a vaccine; they themselves were victims of this kind of authoritarian push.
Can you talk a bit about how you have been targeted? How do you protect yourself?
So, I’m attacked as being a prominent vaccine scientist who both advocates for and makes vaccines. Initially, I became public enemy number one or two because anti-vaccine groups were selling books on Amazon that alleged autism links and peddling phony autism cures connected to vaccination. My debunking of vaccine links to autism was affecting their bottom line. Now I’m basically going up against their authoritarian statements, and because there is so much antisemitism woven into the fabric of the far right, the fact that I’m Jewish makes it kind of a three-for-one deal. One, I’m a vaccine scientist. Two, I’m one of the few American scientists who have been working on coronaviruses for the last ten years, which means they can try to pin COVID origins on me. And third, the fact that I’m Jewish is icing on the cake for the far right. They weave that all together, both with overt antisemitic statements as well as this kind of Nazi-style rhetoric to compare me to a Nazi.
In terms of protecting myself, if I get a threat either on the internet, by email, or by social media, or even a threat that I’m going to be stalked or I’m actually stalked, I have a system of notification with the Texas Medical Center Police Department, Texas Children’s Hospital security, Baylor College of Medicine security, and the Houston Police Department. That’s really important, and then, if it’s specifically around the fact that I’m Jewish or it uses Nazi imagery, then I have a contact at the Anti-Defamation League’s southwest chapter. I organically have grown this network of people to contact, but sometimes I still get surprised at what happens. Last year I was invited to speak at Temple Emanu El, a Reform synagogue near Rice University and the Texas Medical Center and the last place on earth I thought I’d be stalked. But two people came in and started heckling me about vaccines and I thought that was pretty remarkable.
I try not to do things in secret. I try to be fairly open, because otherwise they win, right? Anytime I give a public lecture I announce it, but I also tell the host, “Make sure you have some security on hand.”
So, you are very much on the front lines of science advocacy, but of course you also have a virology lab where you work on developing vaccines for neglected tropical diseases. What are you currently working on in the lab?
Our lab develops vaccines for neglected diseases of poverty and what I sometimes call “science tikkun,” science to benefit the world. We’ve been making vaccines for parasitic infections that occur in poor countries that the pharma companies would never think about making. But in addition to that, like I said, we started making coronavirus vaccines ten years ago because nobody was making SARS and MERS vaccines. This was fortuitous because when the COVID-19 sequence hit, we were able to move very quickly and start making a vaccine, using the same philosophy and approach that we used for our parasitic disease vaccines, meaning low cost and easy to transfer to vaccine producers in low- and middle-income countries. The vaccine technology that our Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development made has now been transferred with no patent to both India and Indonesia, and will hit the 100 million doses administered mark by the end of this year.
Giving populations access to COVID vaccines that never would’ve had that access before is making a big difference. Then, you might say, “Well, why don’t you just stop there? Why take on the role of defending vaccines in addition to that, and doing this larger advocacy?” Well, this is what I’ve been doing now for the last 20 years, when the assertion was being pushed that vaccines cause autism. I wrote Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism because I worried that it was going to start affecting vaccination rates both in the United States and globally, which now it has, and I wanted to start chipping away at that. I’ve had kind of a dual career for the last couple of decades, both as a vaccine scientist and developer, but also kind of leading the fight against anti-vaccine activism, which now has fully become a political movement. If you told me when I got my MD/PhD in New York in the 1980s that in the 2020s I’d be going up against authoritarian politics, I’d have said, “What are you talking about?” That’s been my new challenge.
Can you talk a bit more about “science tikkun” and how your work is informed by your Judaism?
My rabbi cousin, Phil Lazowski, was one of the Jews in the forest [the roughly 25,000 Jews who survived WWII in the woods of Eastern Europe]. He taught me the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. I quickly embraced it and saw that it was exactly what I was hoping to do, and I turned it into this concept of science tikkun. I don’t know if that’ll catch on or not, but it is a driving force for me: science and the pursuit of humanitarian goals. I actually think a lot of scientists do that. They just don’t quite articulate it like that.
And the reason I don’t get demoralized is that I do feel I’m making a difference. I mean, the fact that we’ve developed COVID vaccines that have now gone into the arms of 100 million people, including 75 million kids, means I wake up every morning and pinch myself and say, “Wow, can’t believe we were able to do that.” This is why I became a scientist, and so that’s very gratifying, as is the fact that my books about combating anti-science also resonate with a lot of people. I explain it in a way to help people understand its origins, that it’s not just some random junk that appears on the internet but is deliberate, organized, well-financed, and connected to a political system. It’s something people don’t know, and so being able to articulate that has also been really important for me as well.
Is there anything that the Jewish American community could do to support science and the kind of work you’re doing?
The intimate link between anti-science and antisemitism isn’t commonly appreciated. I think articulating that is important for a lot of people, because they don’t understand that a lot of the attacks on science and scientists have antisemitic components to them. I think it’s something to look out for, and something to be concerned about as part of a larger wave of antisemitism we’re seeing from the far right.
Before we go, I wanted to ask your thoughts about what lies ahead in terms of the coronavirus. With declines in test positivity and COVID hospitalizations flattening, are we in for a new upward trajectory this winter?
What happens in Western and Central Europe is usually followed by an upswing in cases in the United States. Those areas just got through a pretty good-sized wave of COVID, so I would expect that means we’re in for another wave toward the holiday season. How bad it’ll be is unclear, but the bottom line is: Get your bivalent booster. Getting a boost will more likely help you with what’s circulating now and what’s coming down the pike.
When variants seem to outpace boosters, what’s the clearest way to convey to the public that vaccines are effective?
Well, the way you do that is you say, “The scientific community is aware of that and has moved forward to reconfigure the vaccine.” The current bivalent vaccine targets not only the original lineage but also the BA5, which is currently the dominant circulating lineage. When you look at the new subvariants that are emerging, they all seem to be derived from either BA5, BA4, or BA2, so the bivalent booster is more likely to protect against future subvariants. That’s a key message, which unfortunately most Americans are not heeding. Only about 7 percent of eligible Texans, for instance, have gotten their bivalent booster. Up in the Northeast, which has better acceptance of vaccines, it’s only about 30 percent. We still have a lot of advocacy to do.
Top Image: Dr. Peter J. Hotez photo by Agapito Sanchez, Baylor College of Medicine.