Dr. Peter Hotez has been working on vaccine development and the treatment of neglected tropical diseases for decades Now that vaccines are the key to returning to something like normal life, his expertise is greatly sought after.
Dr. Hotez describes the first vaccines that were useful in Western society. In fact, this is where we get the name “vaccine,” as this was a cowpox virus given to prevent smallpox, which was a deadly scourge. Historians actually aren’t sure whether the actual virus came from a cow or a horse, but the name stuck. It now applies to all vaccines, not only those designed to prevent smallpox.
Modern vaccinations are much higher tech than Jenner’s original anti-smallpox injection. However, the principles are the same. Even high-tech vaccines like the mRNA versions being employed currently against COVID-19 alert the immune system to a potential intruder so that if the actual infectious virus comes along, the immune response will reject it.
When there is a world-wide pandemic, pathogens don’t stop at national borders. Vaccines should not, either. Dr. Hotez describes a remarkable incident in which the US and the USSR collaborated on the development of the oral polio vaccine in the middle of the Cold War.
Simply developing vaccines is not enough, however. People must also embrace the opportunity to be vaccinated. Suspicion in a few areas has slowed the uptake of polio vaccine and delayed eradication of the disease. The eradication of smallpox decades ago showed, however, that with global cooperation such a feat is possible.
Dr. Hotez has spent his career working to protect children from tropical diseases. Malaria is a notorious killer of young children. The prospects for an effective antimalarial vaccine are now becoming much better. He has also strived to develop vaccines against parasitic diseases such as schistosomiasis and leishmaniasis. Was it difficult for him to shift his attention from these conditions to SARS-CoV-2?
The current vaccines against COVID-19 are extremely effective. We don’t know, however, how long immunity will last and whether we will need booster shots to maintain it. Boosters might also be needed against variants. Witnessing the devastation a global pandemic can cause and the ability to respond quickly with vaccine development may help us prepare better for the next pandemic.
Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, is a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and the founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, where he is also the codirector of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development. Dr. Hotez is the author of several books. His latest book is Preventing the Next Pandemic: Vaccine Diplomacy in a Time of Anti-science.