Public Health

Tips from Peter Hotez, MD, on combating anti-science rhetoric


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In the second of a two-part series, AMA Chief Experience Officer Todd Unger continues the conversation with Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, on how to combat anti-science movements and how physicians and medical students can join the fight.

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  • Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, dean, National School of Tropical Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine.

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Unger: Hello, this is the American Medical Association's COVID-19 update. Today, we continue with part two of a two part series with Dr. Peter Hotez, who shares how he combats anti-science movements and how other physicians and medical students can join the fight. Well, when you have people coming after you on social media, trolling you, do you have any specific advice for how you interact with folks like that around hot topics?

Dr. Hotez: Yeah, thanks for that question. So what I do not do is, I don't get into long arguments on Twitter or social media. I find that a very unproductive rabbit hole. I try to get the information out there, but I don't typically engage, especially with the trolls, especially people that are very aggressive, because it's a time sink. Before you know it, you've looked up at the clock, and you've spent 45 minutes doing this, and there are more important things that you could be focusing on. So, I try to limit social media time. As Lady Gaga once brilliantly said when asked about social media, she called it the toilet of the internet, and to some extent I think she's right.

So, I try to invest efforts. I know I do some social media. I have a presence on Twitter, but I try to also focus on what I think are more productive aspects. So books, I actually write single authored books, which I absolutely love, or writing commentary pieces in biomedical journals, or even op-ed pieces in newspapers. So, using your voice, and your oral, and written communication skills in productive ways. So with social media, I try to get in and out as fast as I can, in order to make those statements.

Unger: Any particular advice for medical students who might not have the same restrictions that a physician might?

Dr. Hotez: Well, I'd say be careful, because you do have restrictions, and social media can be a minefield if you're not careful. So that's why I say, get advice from your office of communication. Say, "Hey look, I want to get involved in public engagement. I want to be out there. Do you have some advice?" They are professionals, and you can learn a lot from them. And they can help you, especially if you want to put an op-ed piece in your local newspaper. That can have a very powerful impact and you can make a difference.

I think it's also helpful to be able to distinguish policy from advocacy, and be able to recognize the two. They certainly reinforce each other, but they're not always quite the same. With policy, more focused on shaping the actual legislation, and advocacy, and providing information that can help inform on policy. Many people think of them as the same thing. And I'm basically an MD PhD laboratory investigator, developing vaccines. And people think that I'm also a policy expert. I'm not really, I'm mainly doing advocacy around certain gap issues where I think there's a hole.

For instance, not defending vaccines or making people aware about neglected diseases of poverty, either in the U.S. or globally. So, it's more for advocacy informing policy. So having clear cut understanding of the difference, and having discussions with experts in your medical school about policy, and knowing what your goals are. So trying to be as specific in your objectives as you can in order to build a roadmap. Things will vary, and things will change, but at least having that roadmap could be extremely useful.

Unger: Well, I see a lot of physicians very comfortable with interacting with each other on social media platforms, but there's clearly, based on what you're saying, a need to provide better instruction and guidance for how physicians can take a bigger role on social media platforms, and have their voice amplified. I'm going to just turn quickly to one other topic. I'm going to talk to you about vaccine development. You've been very active in coronavirus vaccine development. Can you tell us a little bit more about where do we stand? And when do you think we'll have a viable vaccine?

Dr. Hotez: Right. So we have a recombinant protein vaccine that we have developed, actually two vaccines that we're moving into clinical trials, and ours is a global health vaccine. But it's low cost. It uses a microbial fermentation system. So we're hoping by end of the year to be in clinical trials. In terms of Operation Warp Speed in the US government, I think you'll start to see later this summer, the first vaccine starting to move into phase three trials. And I think over the course of the year, it will hopefully start collecting enough information on the efficacy of these vaccines, and the safety of these vaccines. So maybe by third quarter 2021, we can have some of these vaccines released to the public.

We're hearing a lot of misinformation: we'll have vaccines in weeks, or months, or by the fall, or before the election. And I don't see a path by which that happens. The good news is there will be vaccines. I think the intellectual exercise that developing COVID-19 vaccine is not that complicated. We need to induce an immune response against the spike protein, especially neutralizing antibodies. And if we do that, we'll have a COVID-19 vaccine. It's an old school problem in virology, but we have to give it adequate time to collect that efficacy and safety testing data.

Unger: And once we do have that vaccine, obviously the fear of vaccine is something that's not new, and I know something you've been dealing with for a long time, is going to be a factor. Several articles have already suggested that a certain percentage of the population may not be willing to get a vaccine for COVID-19 even when it's available. So what's important for people to know, and how should physicians address potential vaccine fears?

Dr. Hotez: Yeah, you're right. There are two studies coming out of the Associated Press and Reuters are finding up to half of Americans won't accept COVID-19 vaccines, even if they're made available. And my premise is that we created this mess by this term Operation Warp Speed. It gives the impression that we're rushing our clinical trials. We've been hearing about with some of the biotech, some of the conflicts of interest, and stock dumping, and let's remember what the anti-vaccine movement is based on.

One, they claim vaccines cause autism, and I've spent a lot of time fighting that and getting that "OG villain moniker,” because I wrote a book "Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism." But then the other things they claim is we rush vaccines, we don't test them adequately for safety, and there's this conspiratorial relationship between the pharma companies and the government. And so, unfortunately the way this has rolled out, and the way the messaging has been has really played into that. And so, we've got to take steps not to be so tone deaf, and change how we are explaining things, and how we communicate to the public.

Unger: Oh well, thank you very much. We really appreciate your efforts to correct misinformation. Well, that concludes part two of our two-part series with Dr. Hotez. Thank you so much for being with us here today, and sharing your perspective. If you missed part one, you can find it on AMA's YouTube channel. We'll be back on Monday with another COVID-19 update. In the meantime, for resources on COVID-19, visit Thanks for being with us here today, and take care.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this video are those of the participants and/or do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.