Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, being a public defender of vaccines was not rewarding. After I wrote the book “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as a Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician, and Autism Dad,” about my daughter, as a means to debunk false assertions alleging vaccine-autism links and educate the public about the origins and causes of autism, I became a target of antivaccine groups. Their threats (which continue) through e-mails, social media, personal confrontations, and anonymous phone calls, assert that I maintain secret ties to big pharma (even though I develop vaccines for neglected diseases linked to poverty), or that I have financial motivations (I don’t). In some cases, the threats were overtly antisemitic and included horrific images from the Holocaust.
During the pandemic, the anti-science attacks have gotten worse. Adding to my distress is that many scientific professional organizations do not speak out to defend scientists or offer us assistance.
I have been outspoken about the dangers of refusing a COVID-19 vaccination, and have pointed out how more than 150,000 unvaccinated Americans have needlessly lost their lives since last summer as a result. I cite data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, NPR, Charles Gaba (an independent health analyst), and other sources revealing an unambiguous and stark partisan divide: overwhelmingly Republican or conservative stronghold areas exhibit the lowest acceptance of COVID-19 vaccinations, and consequently the highest number of cases and deaths due to COVID-19.
Those who defy vaccines are paying with their lives. They are victims of media outlets and even members of Congress who openly espouse antivaccine views. Last summer, Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia called vaccinators “medical brown shirts,” referring to Nazi paramilitary groups, while other congressional members attending the July Conservative Political Action Conference claimed vaccines were political instruments of control.
Some elected officials have since taken this a step further by seeking to discredit individual biomedical scientists. I was ridiculed by Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida on a Fox News broadcast, and, earlier this month, I was targeted by Greene and Steve Bannon on Real America’s Voice a week after our research team announced emergency use authorization in India of a recombinant protein COVID vaccine for global health. Such statements are often followed by threatening e-mails and other notes accusing me of “crimes against humanity” or warning that I will soon be hunted by “armed patriots.” During the Jewish high holidays, while I was in Houston to give a speech at a reform synagogue, I was stalked and heckled.
Other scientists have fared worse, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been the subject of intimidation on multiple occasions by both Senate and House members, including a vituperative exchange earlier this month with Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Several nongovernmental scientists have been targeted as well.
Dog whistles from highly visible elected officials are unnerving, especially when followed by a barrage of hate e-mail and online threats. For biomedical scientists laboring to shape new approaches or therapeutics to combat COVID-19 there is really no roadmap for how to respond or seek protections. In my case, since this also includes antisemitic attacks, I have been able to get help and advice from the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations, but often there is nowhere obvious to seek help.
Fifty years ago, American scientists founded the Committee of Concerned Scientists to defend their colleagues abroad — many from authoritarian states such as Turkey or China where they experienced human rights violations. However, political scientists such as Harvard’s Steven Levitsky have since sounded the alarm for increasing authoritarianism in the United States. How can society address a far-right US authoritarian movement seeking to undermine scientists?
We need an organization that is prepared to defend biomedical scientists. Thus far, the major professional and academic societies, including the National Academies, find themselves in the difficult position of balancing their historical neutrality in American politics with the need to preserve the integrity and productivity of American science. The reality is that political neutrality is often impossible when defending scientists — it favors the oppressor (to paraphrase Elie Wiesel). Ideally, an organization defending scientists would provide legal advice or practical instructions for managing media and social media communications. It could advise on how to engage law enforcement when public attacks incite serious threats from adherents. It might resemble the renowned Southern Poverty Law Center, established to promote social justice and combat racism, but be focused on helping US scientists, or a biomedical equivalent to the more recently created Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.
When I obtained my MD and PhD in the 1980s, I never dreamed it would become necessary to defend the importance of science and scientists in a nation built on great research universities. We must face this new reality and find new paths, to hold to account those who seek to destroy basic tenets of knowledge and the safety of those who generate and promote it.
Dr. Peter Hotez is a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology at Baylor College of Medicine and codirector of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, which developed a low-cost COVID-19 vaccine for global health.