US Needs to Act Against ‘Anti-science Aggression’ to Protect Medicine and Scientists
Dr Anthony Fauci, former Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was attacked and vilified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The conspiracy-based anti-science attacks on scientists and vaccines that proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic in the US are likely to have chilling, long-term effects on biomedicine, according to Professor Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. 

The biggest casualty may be childhood vaccinations, leading to a surge in diseases that had been almost eradicated such as measles, whooping cough and polio, writes Hotez in FASEB BioAdvances journal.

Polio cases in New York city and an outbreak of measles in unvaccinated children in Ohio already bear this out.

Confidence in childhood vaccines has already dropped considerably during the pandemic, with 35% of US parents now opposed to routine immunisations being required before children could enroll in school, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report in December 2022.

Meanwhile, a 2021 survey by YouGov found that less than half (46%) of parents who supported the Republican Party were in favour of childhood vaccines being mandatory for school attendance in contrast to 85% of Democrats. Overall, support for vaccine mandates dropped by 4% between 2020 and 2021.

The effect of Republican politicians’ promotion of anti-vaccine conspiracies has already been seen in COVID-19 death statistics, with Republican (“red”) states recording much higher death rates.

“During Delta, COVID-19 vaccinations exhibited over 90% protective immunity versus death and yet an estimated 40,000 Texans died because they declined to get immunized,” writes Hotez, who is based in Texas.

“Nationally, that number of unnecessary deaths was approximately four to five-fold higher. The analyses from The New York Times and healthcare data specialist, Charles Gaba, reports that those deaths overwhelmingly occurred in conservative or Republican-majority states. Moreover, the ‘redder’ the state in terms of voters, the lower the immunization rates, and the higher deaths climbed.”

Hotez cites multiple examples of Republican politicians discrediting the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccinations during the Delta and Omicron waves. The US has one of the highest global COVID death rates per capita in the world, with 1.1 million deaths.

“Thousands of Americans in conservative states believed it all, and they paid with their lives. They fell victim to a coordinated campaign of antiscience aggression. Its three major elements included anti-vaccine and antiscience rhetoric from federal and state elected officials, together with amplification nightly on Fox News (and other news outlets) and academic cover from a few universities and extremist think tanks,” argues Hotez.

Demoralising effect

Professor Peter Hotez has been harassed by anti-vaccine protestors.

Hotez, who has been subjected to persistent harassment by anti-vaccine protestors, warned that the anti-science movement will “demoralize biomedical scientists”, many of whom already report that they “live in a climate of fear” as they face an “avalanche of abuse” via emails, social media and physical confrontations.

The “unprecedented distrust of scientists” could result in a reduction in federal support for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other biomedical research institutions, and discourage university students from pursuing careers in the sciences. 

“I am regularly targeted online through social media and emails, as well as phone calls and even in-person confrontations. The Florida Governor has disparaged me on Fox News, despite my correct predictions regarding COVID-19 in his state, while about Dr Anthony Fauci he stated his desire to have ‘that little elf’ thrown “across the Potomac [River]”.

Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to the president from 2021 to 2022, has faced almost constant derision and death threats during the pandemic.

Urgency to respond

Given that the rise in anti-science sentiment could undermine the future of biomedical science in America, Hotez argues that it is essential for both US President Joe Biden and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to respond. 

“The political drivers for the assaults on biomedical science and scientists remain unclear, but they resemble those directed against climate science and scientists that began a decade ago,” he notes.

“During the 20th century, science and scientists were attacked as part of larger ambitions for authoritarian control in the USSR and elsewhere. The motivation may be similar.”

Possible responses include “a federal plan to preserve science and protect American scientists” and a legal defence fund for scientists

As the pathogen causing the next pandemic may have both high mortality rates and transmissibility “we must find ways to limit the flow of disinformation to ensure that life-saving vaccines and therapeutics do not go unused as they did in America during the time of COVID-19,” he urges.

“More complicated is how we limit the spread of disinformation in a free and open society committed to first amendment rights. This concern must be balanced with the stark reality that anti-science aggression is causing a substantial loss of human life, possibly in the hundreds of thousands according to some estimates,’” he adds.

“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.”

Image Credits: flickr/The White House. Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.