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How The Coronavirus ‘Reenergized’ The Anti-Vaccine Movement

As scientists and researchers urgently work to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus that would save lives and help societies to safely reopen, the anti-vaccine movement has been mobilizing to convince people they shouldn’t take it. Anti-vaxxers have become a prominent presence at demonstrations against lockdowns and social distancing, while spreading conspiracies and misinformation to millions on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. 

Dr. Peter Hotez has long tried to push back against anti-vax falsehoods and activists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has promoted widely debunked myths about vaccines and become a face for the cause. Hotez wrote about the movement as both a vaccine scientist and the father of a child with autism in his book ”Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism.” He is now part of one of the many efforts to find a vaccine that will prevent COVID-19 and stop the pandemic.

HuffPost talked with Hotez, who is dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, about how coronavirus has made the anti-vaccine movement even more dangerous. 

You’ve debunked anti-vaccine conspiracies and misinformation for a long time. How have you seen the anti-vax movement change during coronavirus?

Well, people were so eager to see a COVID-19 vaccine come out. What I thought was that people would see what it’s like to live in a pre-vaccine era where you have a real serious threat to you or your family by not having a vaccine, and that this would put a real dent in the anti-vaccine movement. I think it did for about a month, before they really figured out how to regroup and respin things. In some ways, and I’m sorry to say this, they’ve actually reenergized and gained strength. 

It’s happened in part because of a few missteps in some of the messaging around COVID-19 vaccine development that were really unfortunate. One was the messaging coming out of the White House, calling their vaccine initiative “operation warp speed,” along with press releases from biotech and pharma companies. I think those did a lot of damage. 

The two major things that the anti-vaccine movement claims is that vaccines cause autism, and I’ve spent years of my life refuting that, and the other is that vaccines are not adequately tested for safety and rushed through to benefit pharma companies. Calling it “operation warp speed” and putting out press releases saying we’re gonna have the vaccine in days or weeks or by the fall ― which is absolutely not true ― was like a gift to the anti-vaccine movement. I’m quite upset about that.

It hit the anti-vaccine conspiracy talking point that these are untested and we don’t know what they’ll do.

It’s a gift to RFK Jr. The other way they reenergized is quite interesting. Around 2015 the anti-vaccine movement in America pivoted to the political right. They started getting Tea Party donor funds and they started creating political action groups that usually have the words “choice” or “medical freedom” in them. Alex Jones picked up on them, RFK Jr. appeared on Fox News. Now what you’re seeing is that there are far-right and libertarian groups that are flouting social distancing mandates and demonstrating in state capitals. They’re being joined by the anti-vaxxers, and there’s this sort of unholy alliance starting between anti-vaxxers and groups protesting social distancing.

A truck bearing the message "Jesus is my vaccine" blares its siren in support while passing anti-quarantine and pro-Trump pro

A truck bearing the message “Jesus is my vaccine” blares its siren in support while passing anti-quarantine and pro-Trump protestors took over the steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol.

Have you noticed any prominent new figures emerging within the movement or is it largely the same sort of groups from before?

Clearly RFK Jr. is out in front on this one. His group Children’s Health Defense started in fall of 2018, so it’s been going on a couple years now and he’s gained strength, clout and funding. Now he’s going after Bill Gates, going after Fauci. They’re throwing out every conspiracy theory that they can. It’s funny, they’ve designated me the “OG villain.” I had to look up what that means ― it means original gangster villain. 

Well of all the things to get called, maybe that’s one you can embrace. 

Definitely.

We’ve seen with measles how a small group of unvaccinated people can have a disastrous effect on broader public health. Is it the same for when a potential coronavirus vaccine comes? If there are small groups of people who refuse the vaccine, will that make stopping the virus much harder?

Well we’ve just started collaborating with vaccine modeler and health economist Bruce Lee, and we’re now doing an exercise to look at the percentage of people who need to be vaccinated to stop transmission. 

It will depend on what the real reproductive number of the virus is and how effective the vaccine is, but we’ll model that situation because we need to know. For measles you need 95% of the population vaccinated in order to create herd immunity ― is that what we need for this virus? Others have come up with 60 to 70%, but we’ll see with a vaccine. That’s going to be an important question ― what happens if so many people are scared off of a vaccine because of the messaging from the anti-vaccine movement that they wait and see about whether to take it? 

Aside from the more fringe anti-vaccine conspiracies that are out there like Bill Gates trying to microchip everyone, do you see common misconceptions about how a vaccine might arrive or how it will work?

Sometimes you wake up in the morning, all of a sudden everything gels and it clicks an idea in your head. I suddenly realized why all this talk about having a vaccine by the fall, which is not true, why all that language is around. I think it’s because when you listen to the president or Vice President [Mike] Pence, their understanding is that it’s a manufacturing problem. They see vaccines as the same problem as the ventilators or the diagnostics ― that we haven’t scaled manufacturing. The whole emphasis in the White House response has been around getting manufacturing contracts in place. In their mind that’s the whole problem, but what they don’t understand is there’s a good chance many of those vaccines are not going to work and the problem with vaccines is taking the adequate time to accumulate enough data to show the vaccines actually work and are safe. That’s the bottleneck and that’s the part you can’t rush. 

What I’ve been pushing really hard on is for the White House and NIH to get a communications strategy and get somebody out there who is explaining all this stuff. You’re asking people to read the tea leaves and that’s not the way it should be. Get somebody out there and roll out the vaccine strategy, why this works and why this is safe. That’s probably one of the best ways to defuse the anti-vaccine lobby.

I know you previously tried to get funding and interest for vaccine research against coronaviruses in 2016, but couldn’t find enough support. I imagine it’s a very different situation now. I was wondering how you think this pandemic will change the way that vaccines are researched and developed in the future.

We’re doing better now. We’ve got some federal funds and a bit of private money. The issue is that after every pandemic, I’ve said this one will be the game-changer and we’re going to have more proactive systems in place for vaccines. I said that after SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, MERS in 2012 ― you get the picture ― Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016 and I’m saying it now. Maybe this is the one, because you’ve never had as much disruption as this. 

But in parallel with that, we still haven’t addressed the anti-vaccine movement in a meaningful way. It is globalized, it is better funded, and rather than losing steam in the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve been able to exploit it and gain strength.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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