‘It put me in a dark, scary place’: Dr. Hotez reveals what it was like to fight COVID-19 disinformation

He’s become a household name during the pandemic as the leading infectious disease expert.

Both passionate and controversial, Doctor Peter Hotez is one of the main faces on the front lines in the war against COVID-19.

His team is also one step closer to developing a new COVID vaccine.

KPRC 2 health reporter Haley Hernandez talked with Dr. Hotez about the latest on the vaccine and what it’s been like behind the scenes during the lockdown and in the time since.

The new wave of COVID

Dr. Hotez holds many titles. Among them, the Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine for the Baylor College of Medicine and Co-Director of Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. In many of the interviews Hotez has done during the pandemic, he’s talked about the many waves of COVID that continue to move through our communities. He explains it’s about researching where the virus came from.

“There will be COVID 26, and COVID 32,” said Dr. Hotez. “And I don’t know the years those will emerge, but you get the idea. These are now going to be regular occurrences until we really understand, granular detail, of how these coronaviruses are emerging out of China and elsewhere.”

To Dr. Hotez, part of the reason it keeps spreading, at least in the beginning, is that people just weren’t listening.

“Well, what I point out is, the reason why 600,000 Americans, including 50,000 Texans, lost their lives is partly due to the SARS of Coronavirus. It’s but in equal measure, it was due to the defiance against mass social distancing and contact tracing and now vaccines. And so, it’s death by anti-science, and I realized it became as important to talk about how to develop vaccines against COVID-19. In equal measure, it’s important to debunk the anti-science and to counteract it.”

Dr. Peter Hotez talked with KPRC 2 about the increasing number of COVID-19 cases
Dr. Peter Hotez talked with KPRC 2 about the increasing number of COVID-19 cases

“Debunking” anti-science and what he calls a disinformation campaign

Sporting his unique look and often blunt expert advice, Hotez navigated uncharted waters from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a job he does not take lightly.

“People were really living their day-to-day life based on what you said,” said KPRC 2 reporter Haley Hernandez.

“That’s that’s right,” said Dr. Hotez. “So, that was a really heavy responsibility.”

Dr. Hotez talked with Haley about being at home with his daughter and wife all while broadcasting via ZOOM to the world.

“I remember, you know. So my reality testing was always my wife, and I remember I was sitting where I usually sit when I get my interviews at home, she was sitting on the sofa on the other side of the laptop,” he explains. “And I said to her, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ And she looked at me, she said, ‘You know what you have to do? You have to save lives, and if that means calling this out as a disinformation campaign,’ she said, ‘Peter, you’re the world’s expert on disinformation campaigns, right?’”

Dr. Hotez caused controversy by navigating what he called disinformation campaigns during the pandemic, making him a target in the media and other places. He said it put him in a dark place.

“Let’s face it, I was talking about a lot of sad things these past two years, right? I mean, there are a couple of times I actually cried on CNN and MSNBC. That, which is another thing I learned about science communication, it’s okay as a scientist to show you’re a human being and have an emotion that gives you some authenticity. So, these were scary times. These were very sad times. So, having a partner life partner was hugely important.”

There have been a lot of times during the pandemic that his interviews and opinions have caused debate.

“The people on the right were attacking me saying, ‘Oh, this guy’s just being political. He’s trying to win votes for Biden.’ And I said, ‘Look, I’m not being political here. This is not fun for me to talk about Republicans and Democrats and liberals and conservatives. But the only way I know how to talk about the anti-science and what’s happening is to talk about it and to call it out, and I think it did save lives.’ But I’m still recovering from that,” Hotez said.

One step closer to a vaccine

From his home office to his lab, all this time Dr. Hotez and his team have also been working on developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Now it’s gone into Phase 3 clinical trials and it’s looking really good. So we’re hoping this will come in as kind of a low-cost, people’s vaccine for the world,” said Hotez.

“What makes it more affordable?” Haley asked.

“Older technology,” explains Hotez. “It’s very old school, similar to the Hepatitis B vaccine that’s been around for decades. So, the hope is that this will fill the gaps because right now Africa is not being vaccinated. Latin America is not being vaccinated. Southeast Asia is not being advanced vaccinated. I’m really excited that this could make a difference.”

(KPRC 2 is always following the latest on all COVID vaccines that are being developed and we will let you know when there are any new updates on this vaccine.)


Dr. Hotez is also an autism dad on a mission

Dr. Hotez gained notoriety as an autism dad on a mission with his book “Vaccines did not cause Rachel’s Autism.”

“That made me public enemy number one with the anti-vaccine groups,” said Hotez. “So by default, I was not only a vaccine scientist, I was the world’s leading expert in anti-vaccine science.”

His daughter Rachel is now an adult. She’s had to make adjustments in the past year just like the rest of us.

“There’s a big OCD component, obsessive-compulsive components, you just got to do everything the exact same way each time. And you know that’s not the way life is, especially during a pandemic. So that was hugely challenging,” Dr. Hotez explained. “And then, you know, every time I was on TV this past year when I was at home, now I’m coming into the office, but, you know, keeping Rachel calm during my interviews. So it was, you know, I can’t complain. Everybody had struggles, but we had struggles too.”

Houston is a home he loves

Dr. Hotez credits a lot of his success now to a decision years ago to move to Houston. He believes Houstonians are among the most intellectually curious group of people he’s ever met.

“I moved to Texas because we have science horsepowers here,” he explains. “I mean, the Texas Medical Center is the most extraordinary place I’ve ever worked. I came here because of science and people don’t know that story. Houston is about the Texas Medical Center and NASA. Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met are here in Houston. And there’s philanthropy, and you can do big things here that you can’t do anywhere else.”

The Hotez family has put down roots in Houston and they hope to stay for the long haul.

“I’m here for good. And I’m here as long as they’re willing to have me. You know, I love it here and we fell in love with the city,” said Hotez. “The schools were fantastic. My special needs daughter went to the special needs program at Lamar High School, which was fabulous. My son Dan went to DeBakey High School and he became an engineer because of that.”

You know you’ve “made it” as a Houston celebrity when your picture is added to the mural wall at Ninfa’s Mexican Restaurant. Dr. Hotez was recently added to the mural wall of the restaurant’s Post Oak Location. There’s also a Po-Boy sandwich named after him at Antone’s Famous Po Boys.

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