Vaccines dominated the news this week after the White House announced Operation Warp Speed, an initiative that aims to develop and produce hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2020.
Also this week, Moderna Therapeutics announced encouraging results for its vaccine in a small human safety study. The news sent Moderna’s stock rise and its valuation to $ 29 billion – unbelievable for a company that has not yet launched a product and has not yet released its data.
To discuss vaccines and the new coronavirus in general, we turned again to vaccine researcher Dr. Peter Hottes. He is a professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children̵
In an interview this week, he discusses his concern that there are still no public health forces in the Houston area to reopen; his concerns about the anti-vaccine movement; and a surprisingly new founder of the coronavirus vaccine study in his lab, Tito’s Vodka.
Texas removes coronavirus restrictions and revives the economy. What are your thoughts on this?
I understand the importance of opening up the economy. My concern is that we have not created a system of public health – testing, tracking contacts – that is commensurate with the maintenance of the economy.
Some models show pretty horrible forecasts for Houston. I mean the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital model, which shows that by the summer, if we’re only about 50% of the social distancing we do now, Harris County could see a sharp jump in the number of patients admitted to hospitals and intensive care units.
This is a model. This is as good as the assumptions on which it is based, and we know that the assumptions are not stable. But it pauses me to worry that if we don’t have a health care system, we could see an epidemic that is much bigger than the one we’ve been through.
Let’s say we open up like we do now. The way a wave works is not like we will see a gradual increase in cases. Models say things will look good for weeks. At first it’s a flat curve, then it’s flat, it’s flat, and only after everything you start to see a sharp, steep magnification.
This is what worries me. In these flat weeks we will feel complacency and then people will start entering the restaurants. Forget about a quarter of the busy bars. Poison Girl, by Westheimer, will be full. Like all other places in Houston.
So: How do we fix this? I think there is a health care system that is bigger and more extensive than proposed. We will need to do extensive tests in the workplace so that you know if your colleagues have COVID-19 – especially asymptomatic COVID-19.
The number of tracking contacts must be much larger than the numbers I see. Governor Abbott says Texas has about 2,000 and plans to hire another 2,000. But keep in mind that Governor Cuomo in New York State hires 17,000 contact trackers. A condition that is much smaller occupies a much larger number.
We don’t yet have this syndrome monitoring system that you and I talked about – an app that would allow Houstonians to report how they feel or monitor temperatures, like the Kinsa electronic thermometer app.
We should bring in our best engineering minds from the oil and gas industry, from NASA, from Texas Medical Center, to create an application-based system – maybe make a hybrid between the kinds of things that Apple puts there, Google or Kinsa or the kinds of things they do in Australia. We can design one that works for our culture, that works for our system. But we are not assembling engineers to put it in place.
We don’t even have an epidemiological model for the city of Houston. There is one for Dallas, represented by Southwest Southwest and the University of Texas. Austin exposed one. But I haven’t seen him for Houston.
So I’m worried that if people start crowding around bars and restaurants and we don’t see the numbers increase in a few weeks, it will be as usual. Everyone will feel good, they will say to themselves: “Hey, I don’t see the cases increasing.”
And it will really speed up, starting in the fall. This is not just true of Houston; this is true for US cities, this will happen just before the 2020 election, so I’m worried about a lot of instability and how we’re mitigating that.
What are your thoughts on all the recent vaccine developments – the new White House Warp Speed operation, the Moderna announcement and everything else?
I am optimistic that we will have several vaccines for COVID-19. As we have already said, making a vaccine against COVID-19 is not that complicated. You need to make an immune response against what is called “spike protein”, the protein part of the virus that interacts with the tissues of the host.
We now know from recently published animal research that we need high levels of what are called “neutralizing antibodies.” It’s not just the amount of antibodies; this is the amount of this special type of antibody. This is what the vaccine of our laboratory is focused on.
In fact, most coronavirus vaccines focus on this, although they use different approaches. We use the recombinant protein approach. Others use inactivated virus or RNA or DNA or adenovirus. Which ones will work best is hard to know. This will take time.
I think that a large part of these vaccines, including the Modern vaccine and perhaps our vaccine, will start to enter the so-called ‘phase three clinical trials’, large clinical trials. I think Modern will be the first, and next year in 18 months we will have a better idea of whether we can have a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19.
I do not know that one particular vaccine has an advantage over another. Unfortunately, some of these companies are releasing press releases. You need to remember who the press releases are for. They are not for you or me or CNN. They are intended for shareholders, for investors. And unfortunately, they are written in a way that is deaf.
I spoke on CNN about my concern about this special press release that Moderna made. Given that there is no real data, you can interpret it in any way: that this is good news or that it is bad news that it may not work. People were surprised to hear that.
I try to focus on organizations that actually publish their data so that the scientific community can see it. Even if you don’t want to wait for the full peer review and publish in a magazine, you can take things out there so people can see it. You can use prepress servers – bioRxiv and metArXiv – to retrieve the data there.
I generally do not read press releases or press releases. I will treat anyone doing this as hydroxychloroquine at this time. [Laughs], Has the same status
But I think we will have vaccines. Our lab sees promise in laboratory animals. This week we presented some of our information about our bioRxiv vaccine because we are able to achieve significant levels of neutralizing antibodies. Then it’s all about showing that we can reproduce this in humans and do it safely.
I’m worried that in these irresponsible press releases, part of the language is being used by both the White House – which it calls Operation Warp Speed - and biotechnology. We seem to be in a hurry with vaccines or doing things that may not be safe.
This is a central principle of the anti-vaccine movement. Vaccines are said to be hasty, unsafe, there is a cozy relationship between pharmaceutical companies and the government, they are hiding data.
They also say that vaccines cause autism, and I am against that. I am a vaccine scientist and also the parent of an elderly daughter on the autism spectrum. I wrote a book, “Vaccines Didn’t Cause Rachel’s Autism.”
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So when companies publish these press releases that say we’ll have things in weeks, or “You don’t have to look at the data, just take your word for it,” it’s really dangerous. Studies will come out showing that a significant percentage of the American population will not get vaccinated against COVID-19, even if they are available, because they are so convinced by the anti-vaccine movement, which is fueled by misinformation and misleading press releases.
We have a partnership with a group at New York City University that looks at what percentage of the American population needs to be vaccinated to stop the transmission. We still don’t have that answer, but I think it will be a pretty high percentage of the population.
So even if the COVID-19 vaccine is there, if we join the vaccine movement and Americans start refusing to take the vaccine, it may not achieve its goal. We may not be able to stop the transmission because there are not enough Americans vaccinated.
I am pushing hard for the White House and the National Institutes of Health to adopt a communication plan – to put a kibosh on companies that issue press releases, and to get someone articulate to explain how the vaccine program works, why we are not in a hurry. why we do certain things.
In March, I was stuck when you mentioned that in addition to running a lab, making media appearances, and not following rapidly changing research, you also spend a lot of time raising money to support your research. I assumed that as one of the leading laboratories for coronavirus vaccine in the country and with this vaccine with such a high global priority that its research would now be fully funded. What is the status of this?
We’re trying to move one of our vaccines into clinical trials and engage the FDA – that’s a lot of work. And we have a second vaccine that we are trying to increase.
So everyone works very hard at the same time as we try to raise money for it. My research partner Maria Elena Botazi and I have been on a lot of calls for 20 years, working with teams at Baylor and Texas Children’s Hospital.
We have some federal money and also private money. Last week we announced $ 1 million of Tito’s vodka. So now that you order your vodka martini, you need to order Tito. Do not order another vodka. It’s all Tito’s! [Laughs.]
I like bourbon myself, but they haven’t given us money yet. If you can send this to the people who make the Marker product to the manufacturer, it would help me a lot. [Laughs.]
Go. I don’t think Booze companies are the main supporters of critical medical research. How the hell did you get in touch with Tito’s?
They contacted me! That’s why I do podcasts.
I interviewed this very interesting, very smart West Coast doctor, Peter Atia, who is doing an in-depth health podcast. I talked about the urgency of raising adequate funds to focus this on clinical development. I think Tito heard my podcast with him.
What else do Houstonians need to know this week?
We are a sustainable city. We have great strength.
The only thing I would like to see faster ahead is the syndrome monitoring app. I don’t understand why we didn’t call our great oil and gas engineers and NASA and Texas Medical Center.
Why don’t we build our strength? We could do something in Houston that no other city could do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.