Anti-Vaxxers, Misinformation Have Science Under Siege
The cost is thousands of lives
— Carl Sagan, PhD
The antivaccine movement and its attendant misinformation campaigns have science on the run at the cost of thousands of lives, Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, warned recently at the 2023 conference of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) in Orlando, FL.
Indeed, the title of his forthcoming book, to be published later this year, says it all: The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science: A Scientist’s Warning.
After he delivered a keynote address at APIC, Hospital Infection Control & Prevention (HIC) asked Hotez what challenges medicine and science are facing.
“It’s a really big concern,” he said. “I think it is going to spill over into things like gene editing in biomedical science. In some ways, it is reproducing what climate scientists [faced] in the 2010s.”
Hotez added that he does not think things will get better as we head toward the 2024 election, since both major parties have candidates who are anti-vaccine. “It’s not good for the country,” he said.
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. He was instrumental in developing and globally distributing a non-patented COVID-19 vaccine called Corbevax at a time when vaccines primarily were limited to wealthy countries.
Yet, in the United States, where the first messenger ribonucleic (mRNA) vaccines were plentiful and free, tens of thousands of people refused to be vaccinated.
Hotez said those who refused the vaccine and died were “victims of antivaccine aggression.” With the pandemic vaccine roughly 90% protective against death, he estimated that 200,000 people died after refusing the shots.
With his gentle demeanor and ubiquitous bowtie, Hotez has been a frequent guest on television news programs, patiently extolling the benefits of vaccination over the risks of immunization refusal. As a result, he has received threats for his scientific stances, and had security posted near the APIC stage. With Anthony Fauci, MD, out of the pandemic limelight, Hotez joked that the anti-vaxxers must consider him “Fauci-lite.”
In a recent article, Hotez said climate science denial and misinformation led to the creation of a legal defense fund and the establishment of a new type of clearinghouse organization for biomedical scientists to seek both legal counsel and general support.
“Because we are a nation built on science and technology, there is too much at stake to allow our scientific institutions and profession to falter,” he wrote.2 “All indications so far suggest that the biomedical scientific community has not prepared adequately, and there are few plans to counter these politically motivated attacks.”
Scientific Community on Its Heels
HIC sought the opinion of another leading vaccine advocate and expert regarding the threat of growing antiscientific misinformation. William Schaffner, MD, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, also is medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “I think this general sense of being skeptical of science is part of something even larger,” he said. “There is real skepticism about authority of any kind. I am very concerned about a lack of trust in leadership, the unwillingness to give leaders a chance, and from the point of view of science, to be open to new ideas.”
There seems to be general acceptance of scientific advances in technology, such as cell phones, for example, he noted. Yet a historical distrust remains regarding the biological sciences, particularly vaccinations. Vaccines have been the subject of misinformation and fear mongering since Edward Jenner realized in 18th-century England that cowpox infection conferred protection against the much deadlier smallpox virus.
“There were cartoons in England of cow heads coming out of peoples’ arms,” Schaffner said.
Misinformation has long since acquired a more insidious sophistication, with social media algorithms and repetitive messages through multiple media platforms.
“We in public health and science generally are still in a very late, reactive mode to misinformation,” Schaffner said. “The bad guys are very well organized and sometimes disturbingly well financed. They are very focused, but the scientific, public health, and medical establishments have been very slow to acknowledge this and respond in kind, let alone get ahead of the issue and present good information in a compelling and understandable fashion.”
Debate, or Jerry Springer?
Hotez recently drew the ire of anti-vaxxers after he refused to go on the Joe Rogan podcast to debate vaccine critic and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy Jr., saying it would quickly descend into a Jerry Springer show. Kennedy went on the popular show on June 20, 2023, making claims about vaccines that later were rebuked point by point by vaccine scientists such as Paul Offit, MD, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.3,4
Probably the most outrageous of Kennedy’s claims was that the 1918 H5N1 influenza A pandemic that killed millions worldwide was somehow of vaccine origin. “That would make far more sense if there actually was an influenza vaccine in 1918,” Offit said in a videocast. “The first [flu vaccine] was made by Thomas Francis and coworkers in the late 1940s.”
The only two vaccines available in 1918 were the one for smallpox developed by Jenner and a rabies vaccine developed in the 1800s, he said. Offit reminded that Kennedy is not a scientist, but a lawyer and chair of the antivaccine group Children’s Health Defense. In any case, the principles of science are not something resolved in debate, but through the long-established scientific process that ultimately provides the truth of the data.
“One can reasonably debate issues of religion or issues of politics, but science really is debated in a scientific venue,” Offit said. “Something is true or not based on the strength, reproducibility, consistency, and robustness of scientific studies. Eventually, truths will emerge. It really doesn’t matter what RFK Jr. says or what I say or what Joe Rogan says. The only thing that matters is the strength and reproducibility of the data.”
An exasperated Hotez said in his APIC keynote address that this “is not debating some aspect of the culture wars — 200,000 people died because of this. It’s the hardest thing to talk about because all of our training as healthcare professionals, as physicians and scientists, says you are not supposed to talk about politics. I get that — I don’t like talking about it either.”
That said, Hotez plunged ahead to audience applause as he showed analysis and charts of the discrepancy in COVID-19 vaccination rates between traditional red and blue states, which included a New York Times report titled “Red Covid.”5,6
Guns and Bibles
Of the 200,000 people who refused vaccine and died, Hotez estimated that 40,000 were from his state of Texas. He described them as good people who succumbed to misinformation and orchestrated fear.
“Why did this happen [in Texas]? It happened because the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) [met] in Dallas in 2021,” Hotez said. “They basically said first they are going to vaccinate you, and then they are going to take away your guns and Bibles. As ridiculous as that sounds to us, people across Texas essentially accepted it.”
Indeed, a check of a report of the CPAC meeting reveals that — after it was announced that government officials may go door-to-door to encourage vaccination — Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) said, “They could then go door-to-door and take your guns, they could go door-to-door and take your Bibles.”7
The antivaccine message also appeared frequently on Fox News, Hotez said, “as 3 million viewers every night went down this rabbit hole and made the decision not to get vaccines. They were targeted. These are people who would give you the shirt off their back, and they were victims of this.”
Although the general consensus has been that it is very hard to change individual opinions about vaccination, one infection preventionist in the APIC audience said she has had some success by simply showing patients the public data on vaccinations, hospitalizations, intubation, and deaths caused by COVID-19.
“I could care less about their conservative views, but somehow you have to uncouple them from vaccine science,” Hotez said. “Because it is killing too many Americans. Look at the numbers of the societal cost of death. These are not small numbers.”
- Sagan C, Druyan A. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House; 1995.
- Hotez P. Anti-science conspiracies pose new threats to US biomedicine in 2023. FASEB BioAdv 2023;5:228-232.
- YouTube. Vincent Racaniello. Beyond the Noise #7: Vaccine misinformation with RFK, Jr. Published July 3, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGoJeLyMG5I&t=750s
- YouTube. Debunk the Funk with Dr. Wilson. Joe Rogan’s worst misinformation yet, with RFK Jr. Published June 21, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sugCJNAPF9o
- Kates J, Tolbert J, Rouw A. The red/blue divide in COVID-19 vaccination rates continues: An update. Kaiser Family Foundation. Published Jan 19, 2022. https://www.kff.org/policy-watch/the-red-blue-divide-in-covid-19-vaccination-rates-continues-an-update/#:~:text=The%20current%20gap%20of%2013.2,9%20percentage%20points%20last%20June
- Leonhardt D. Red Covid. The New York Times. Updated Oct. 1, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/27/briefing/covid-red-states-vaccinations.html
- Holmes D. They clapped for death at CPAC. Esquire. Published July 12, 2021. https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a37001629/cpac-vaccination-goal-biden-miss-clap/
The antivaccine movement and its attendant misinformation campaigns have science on the run at the cost of thousands of lives, Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, warned recently at the 2023 conference of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.
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