Who is Dr. Peter Hotez?
A career vaccine researcher and physician wades through contention and misinformation to chart a course out of the Covid-19 pandemic
Years before the current pandemic began, Dr. Peter Hotez was sounding alarms about the risk of coronavirus outbreaks and the need for ongoing vaccine research. At the time, the dust was just settling from the MERS pandemic in the Middle East. As the activity around that pandemic quieted, so too did vaccine research. Dr. Hotez was among a few voices that kept the battle cry for coronavirus vaccines alive, urging that a future outbreak was imminent and the time to secure a vaccine was now.
Nearly a decade has passed since the MERS outbreak and Dr. Hotez’s voice has become anything but quiet. Nestled in the heart of one of the hotspots for new Covid-19 cases — Houston, TX — Dr. Hotez finds himself an visible and outspoken voice pushing for policy, research and advocacy regarding Covid-19. Within the last 48 hours, Dr. Hotez was interviewed by several national news organizations where he came out with strong wordage about the state of the pandemic response in the US. Dr. Hotez has not shied away from confronting what he feels are failures in disease response, often going after key prominent figures in the US governement. When asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the possibility of charting a path out of the current resurgence in Covid-19 cases, Dr. Hotez replied, “We just don’t have the leadership to make that happen.”
Peter Hotez is no stranger to controversy. His advocacy and research in vaccine development earned him the ire of the anti-vaxxer community. Dr. Hotez took a strong stance on the debunked issue of vaccines causing autism. Dr. Hotez is well-versed in the safety of vaccines from his work as a pediatrician, but his involvement in the issue hits closer to home in that. In his book Vaccines Did Not Causes Rachel’s Autism, he weaves his work as a vaccine researcher into his personal experience of having a daughter with autism. His book along with dozens of published articles make him a well-rounded and experienced voice in the vaccine world.
Dr. Hotez’s career started in an impressive, yet unassuming fashion. Degrees in biophysics, biochemistry and medicine ultimately landed him a teaching position at Yale School of Medicine. His early research in infectious diseases pushed him to research many of the conditions not commonly seen in developed nations — diseases like Chagas, African sleeping sickness and leprosy. Dr. Hotez is currently the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and an expert in virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine. His work ultimately led to research into vaccine development, which soon ushered him into the world of coronaviruses.
In response to the two previous coronavirus outbreaks — SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012 — Dr. Hotez ramped up research and reporting on coronavirus vaccines. At one point shortly after the SARS outbreak, researchers were close to developing an effective vaccine. As the MERS pandemic subsided, waning interest in the disease lead to difficulties in gaining support and funding for his projects. Dr. Hotez took issue with this, even going before the House of Representatives to argue the need for funding and efforts behind vaccines for diseases that are either rare or not currently in the limelight.
Dr. Hotez’s research into the SARS vaccine helped elucidate some of the key pieces of knowledge that make up our current understanding of Covid-19 infections. Namely the method of infection by binding of the S-protein (spike) to its receptor ACE2. This is a feature shared by all three of the major coronavirus strains that have caused outbreaks, a point that he made repeatedly in arguing for the potential of coronavirus vaccines. His work also delved deeper into the structure and function of the spike protein — and of the antibody response to it — in looking at the efficacy and safety of vaccines. He addressed the issue of some experimental vaccines — both for coronavirus and other viral conditions — causing worsening symptoms in those who received the vaccine. This finding pushed vaccine developers to instead target the spike protein, specifically the region that binds ACE2 known generally as a receptor binding domain (RBD). Most of the current Covid-19 vaccines undergoing clinical trials have targeted this specific region in hopes of developing immunity.
Whether he relishes it or not, Dr. Hotez has also found himself in partisan battles around the response to Covid-19. Taking a strong stance on either side of public health policy is bound to put you at odds with others who disagree in a widely contentious issue. Dr. Hotez is active on Twitter, and uses this platform to convey opinion and share facts and findings from his research. In early May, Dr. Hotez found himself called out as being “bought and paid for” by special interests by Texas State Reprisentative Jonathan Stickland (R) after a post regarding vaccine exceptions in the state of Texas. Stickland went on to urge Hotez to “mind his own business” when it comes to individual rights versus vaccine requirements. This thread earned massive support from followers, who recognize there is hardly a more qualified figure to “mind” the business of vaccines than Peter Hotez.
Charting a course out of the current pandemic will require strong leadership, and actions built of existing knowledge and facts around how this disease affects people. Drawing conclusions from a huge body of knowledge and building a cohesive policy that moves and unites the US is no small task, but is best served by those scientists, representatives and leaders willing to stand with the facts and humbly push forward and use their voice to influence those around them. Dr. Peter Hotez has proven through his work and advocacy that he is one of the powerful voices capable of leading us out of this pandemic.