On a fateful day in 2019, a minuscule virus made an Earth-changing move, leaping from an animal to a human in the Chinese city of Wuhan. This moment has led to hundreds of millions of global infections, leaving millions dead. Less than two years on, the world has changed.
While chance no doubt played a part in this zoonotic jump, the ensuing pandemic is far from a random streak of bad luck. As Professor Peter Hotez sees it, COVID-19 is a crystal clear reflection of the many problems facing the 21st century.
“COVID-19 met the perfect storm of several forces that were happening,” Professor Hotez, the bow-tie-wearing Dean of the US National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, tells IFLScience.
“Everything was brewing up to where we are today with this catastrophic pandemic.”
It’s not like we didn't have any warning shots. The 2000s saw severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerge out of southern China in 2002-2003, then we saw Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 2010s. It was clear coronaviruses — the large family of viruses that usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold — had the potential to cause a pandemic, but the majority of the world failed to take note.
The uptick in the number of zoonotic disease outbreaks itself is a reflection of recent changes to the way the global population lives. For the first time, the majority of the world live in cities or urban areas. Paired with ever-increasing deforestation, humans are encroaching on the natural world more than ever, constantly upping the risk of coming into contact with a potential disease not previously experienced and therefore one we have no defense against.
But this alone doesn’t totally explain the rise of COVID-19, Prof Hotez aruges. Fortunately for the virus — and unfortunately for us — it found itself in a largely unprepared world that has been battered by an increasing wave of anti-science sentiment and “strong man politics.”
“It isn’t just COVID-19. It’s COVID-19 plus anti-science that’s causing the damage,” Hotez tells IFLScience. “It isn’t just the virus, it’s the virus combined with individuals who, because of reasons of political allegiance, reject masks, social distancing, and vaccines.”
Some of these individuals have been in high-placed positions of power and influence, their stances and decisions affecting millions of lives.
“Now, we have several regimes that have encouraged that defiant behavior, like the Trump Administration, it’s true of Bolsonaro in Brazil, Detetere in the Philippines, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua," he continued. "They downplay the severity of the pandemic and spectacularize certain cures, like hydroxychloroquine, and discreditings masks. This had deadly consequences.”
Hotez is well-versed in the fight against anti-science, both professionally and personally. After writing Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism, a book detailing the story of his daughter who has autism and the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, he became the number 1 target for the anti-vaccine groups in the US.
Writing in the journal PLOS Biology in January 2021, under the title “Anti-science kills,” he explains how this politicization of biomedical science has mutated into “a complex, multimodal anti-science empire.” This movement has grown beyond anonymous trolls arguing in the comments section of an online post and into a global force that directly affects the way billions of people live out their lives. This, one could argue, would be a very bad time for a pandemic to hit.
“We can attribute the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans from COVID-19, measles, and other vaccine-preventable diseases to anti-science,” Hotez wrote in the article. “Vaccines and other biomedical advances will not be sufficient to halt COVID-19 or future potentially catastrophic illnesses unless we simultaneously counter anti-science aggression.”
The question is, how do we dismantle the lumbering giant of anti-science? Hotez argues that there needs to be a coordinated alliance of committed science organizations to combat the anti-science movement, while international authorities must work towards pushing back against the tidal wave of misinformation online. However, he's also hopeful that better science communication will also play an invaluable role in the pushback.
“One of the reasons anti-science has become so strong is that we, scientists, have become so silent. We’re not out there speaking to the public,” Hotez explains to IFLScience.
“I feel strongly we should create outlets for young scientists to speak out. Right now they’re being held back by the system that says ‘no no, just stick to science, don’t get involved in social justice issues.’ I say that’s bullshit.”