Column: After smearing Anthony Fauci, House Republicans proceed to defame a prominent vaccine scientist (2024)

Peter J. Hotez is one of America’s most prominent vaccine experts. A professor at Baylor College of Medicine, he’s also co-director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, which has developed and licensed a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine that has been distributed widely in the third world.

He’s also among our most prominent critics of the anti-vaccine and anti-science movements that have so thoroughly infected our public discourse — most recently in his 2023 book “The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science: A Scientist’s Warning.” In my columns I’ve quoted him often on that theme.

But Hotez, 66, has had nothing to do with research into the origins of COVID-19, which is supposedly the principal topic of inquiry by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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Anyone who wants my emails and can stomach the Qanon, Putin, and Nazi threats is more than welcomed to them.

— Peter Hotez

So that raises the question of why the subcommittee chose to post a tweet about Hotez on Monday, completely out of the blue.

The tweet accused Hotez of complicity with an effort by David Morens of the National Institutes of Health to circumvent freedom-of-information inquiries by using a private, rather than official, email account. As these things go, the tweet exposes Hotez to public vituperation on social media and possibly physical harm.

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The tweet read as follows:

“Meet Dr. Peter Hotez. Friend and potential accomplice to Dr. Fauci’s Senior Advisor — Dr. David Morens. New evidence suggests Dr. Hotez frequently communicated with Dr. Morens about FOIA evasion tactics and COVID-19 origins.”

Also on Monday, the subcommittee demanded by letter that Hotez turn over all documents and communications between him and six federal agencies and 25 individuals, most of whom are scientists researching COVID’s origins. The letter asserted that Hotez was “involved in frequent e-mail discussions” with Morens and Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance “regarding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.”

A subcommittee spokesperson told me by email that its rationale for targeting Hotez is that among the 30,000 pages of emails Morens provided for its inquiry, “Dr. Hotez is involved in thousands.” In its letter, however, the panel cited only two emails; there are indications in the files it has released that to the extent Hotez is “involved” in emails with Morens, it’s as an addressee in group exchanges with other scientists.

The spokesperson also stated that “Dr. Hotez has relevant communications regarding the origins of COVID-19 with not only many individuals in the federal government and other scientists pertinent to our investigation, but also with Chinese scientists and researchers.” If it knew that, however, why would it need to ask Hotez to provide the communications?

Meet Dr. Peter Hotez.

Friend and potential accomplice to Dr. Fauci's Senior Advisor — Dr. David Morens.

New evidence suggests Dr. Hotez frequently communicated with Dr. Morens about FOIA evasion tactics and COVID-19 origins. https://t.co/M2aCm9VRd6

— Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic (@COVIDSelect) June 5, 2024

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Indio), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, called the Republicans’ action “a fishing expedition against a private citizen” and accused them of trying to distract from “their failure to substantiate extreme, baseless, and debunked allegations that our nation’s scientists and public health officials caused the COVID-19 pandemic and orchestrated a campaign to cover it up.” He’s correct.

In any event, the panel’s letter doesn’t cite any evidence that Hotez was “a potential accomplice” of Morens’, much less justify singling him out via a tweet.

Its tweet and its letter demonstrate how far the subcommittee has gone off the rails, its inquiry having deteriorated into a campaign to smear legitimate scientists working on what may be the most important public health imperative of our time: preparing to fight the next pandemic by understanding the latest one.

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The message, observes scientist and science writer Philipp Markolin, is crystal clear. It’s “speak up against us and our political myth making, and we will publicly smear and punish you with the power of the state.”

As I’ve written, to advance this campaign the subcommittee has placed respected scientists in the dock and showered them with public vituperation, misrepresented their research and ridiculed the scientific method. It has stigmatized EcoHealth Alliance and its president, Peter Daszak, provoking government bureaucrats to cut off their funding.

On Monday, the subcommittee turned its gunsights on Fauci, a revered expert in virology and immunology who was director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 38 years and a key figure in the development of therapies to fight HIV infection.

That hearing ground to a complete halt when member Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) went on a tear, accusing Fauci of killing dogs and asserting “he belongs in prison.” The panel struggled mightily to get Greene to shut up so the hearing could continue. But that was only one low note among many as the GOP majority lived down to our worst expectations.

Instead of responsibly examining the origins of COVID, the subcommittee has burrowed into a series of rabbit holes. It has sought proof that Fauci manipulated a scientific paper to “suppress” scientific findings that the pandemic originated with a leak from a Chinese virology institute.

That effort has failed because not only is there no evidence to support it, but because its own evidence proves that Fauci urged researchers to notify law enforcement authorities if they determined that a lab-leak actually happened. As I’ve reported, learned scientific opinion overwhelmingly supports the theory that the pandemic originated in a spillover of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID, from infected wildlife to humans.

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The subcommittee also has become fixated on evidence that Morens deliberately tried to evade public records laws and NIH policies by conducting some of his correspondence with NIH-funded scientists via private emails, which he mistakenly thought would protect them from freedom-of-information requests. The members may be right about Morens’ activities, but that doesn’t get them any closer to the origins of COVID — after 15 months of wheel-spinning.

That brings us back to the attack on Hotez. He appears to be an innocent bystander to the subcommittee’s campaign of character assassination waged against Fauci and other leaders in COVID research. Monday, the panel tried to drag him into the swamp it has created all by itself, purely for partisan gain.

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Hotez hasn’t participated in research into COVID’s origins; he mentioned that research in his book about anti-science, but only as an illustration of how the lab-leak theory became part of the disinformation epidemic related to COVID. That epidemic includes misrepresentations about the safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccines, which is an area in which Hotez has considerable expertise.

So let’s examine the subcommittee’s claims about Hotez.

How many emails are behind the subcommittee’s assertion in its letter to Hotez that “you were involved in frequent e-mail discussions” with Morens and Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance regarding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic”?

Two, according to the letter itself and the file of emails the subcommittee released as evidence in its investigation of Morens.

Both emails were cited in the subcommittee’s letter to Hotez. But neither has anything to do with the origins of COVID-19. In one, Hotez told Morens in a jocular tone that he has sent “many emails to [Fauci] over the years, but I don’t think anything incriminating.”

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The second referred to an email that Morens mistakenly sent to Hotez but was meant for Daszak; Hotez wrote back to advise Morens that he sent the email to the wrong Peter, which Morens promptly acknowledged.

The panel’s letter, issued over the signature of its chairman, Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), points out rather gleefully that Hotez responded to a May 21 tweet by an anonymous troll demanding that his emails be made public by tweeting that “anyone who wants my emails and can stomach the Qanon, Putin, and Nazi threats is more than welcomed to them. Some I’ve published in my books, others in my articles on anti-science and antisemitism.”

The members stupidly took that as an official offer to the subcommittee, as opposed to a mordant joke aimed at the troll. But it’s unclear that Hotez even has the authority to fulfill the subcommittee’s demand, since he conducts all his correspondence via his Baylor email account. That suggests that a decision about whether and how to respond would be in Baylor’s hands; the school hasn’t yet responded to the subcommittee.

The fact is that the subcommittee has wasted nearly a year and a half chasing a chimera. Its members have nattered on endlessly about their responsibility to safeguard the taxpayers’ money. But how much has it squandered in this spavined, untrustworthy inquiry?

Wenstrup and his colleagues can’t be unaware that their public smear of Hotez may well place him in the crosshairs of people intent on doing him harm. Last year, he was accosted in front of his home by two anti-vaccine agitators demanding that he debate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. about vaccine safety. In his book he reproduced several vituperative emails, including one that called him “a living Mengele.”

That’s the atmosphere pervading the public discussion of science in the U.S. today. The Select Subcommittee has done its best to contribute to this poisonous miasma. It needs to retract its statement about Hotez, post-haste. And the Democrats on the subcommittee need to speak out about their GOP colleagues’ invasion of a scientist’s privacy and their vilification of science and scientists generally. If they remain silent, they can’t evade responsibility for the consequences.

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Column: After smearing Anthony Fauci, House Republicans proceed to defame a prominent vaccine scientist (2024)
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