On Wednesday, Texas Tribune health care reporter Edgar Walters sat down with vaccine expert Peter Hotez for a discussion on the impacts of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Texas and the process for developing a potential vaccine. The conversation was part of the Tribune’s Coronavirus in Texas virtual event series.
Here's a look at some of Hotez’s responses to questions during the interview.
What do we know about the virus so far?
- “We’re still in the early stages of the epidemic,” Hotez said, “[so] we can’t really make firm statements” yet about things like modes of transmission or whether there is a seasonal component to the virus.
- The scientific community is learning more about this virus at a rapid pace and should begin to understand a great deal more about the virus in the months to come.
- Reports have shown that the virus is fairly hardy, with different studies showing that it can live on surfaces for a period ranging from several hours to multiple days.
- “Crowding is a huge component to this,” Hotez said. “This is emerging as an urban epidemic” due to the generally high population density of urban areas.
- Hotez also speculated whether underlying morbidities and/or possible health disparities among communities of color — particularly black people — are another dimension of the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Hotez also noted that one of the reasons mortality rates in areas like Wuhan, China, and Northern Italy are comparatively higher than in other areas is “because they’re unable to manage … all of the intensive care that’s required to keep all these patients alive.” A key way for communities to reduce the number of patients coming into hospitals is to practice social distancing, he said.
Is social distancing worth the economic impacts?
- In response to recent statements made by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and President Donald Trump, Hotez said that he can understand the sense of urgency to get the economy back on track because “it’s heartbreaking to see such a robust economy take such a hit because of this epidemic.”
- Nevertheless, Hotez said, “we really need to get a better sense of where we’re headed.” He cautioned state and federal leaders against setting firm deadlines for lifting social distancing measures.
- Were social distancing measures to be lifted in the two-week time frame, as has been suggested by the Trump administration, Hotez said the dense outbreak in New York City would likely replicate itself in other areas.
- Hotez said more time would be needed to address the current “nightmare scenario” of hospital bed shortages, the increased risk to health care providers and general underpreparedness of our health care system.
- In terms of addressing the emotional and psychological impacts of social distancing and COVID-19 stress, Hotez suggests that “one of the best things people can do right now is ... spend some time outdoors,” especially since the weather in our state is generally so nice.
How long will it take to develop a vaccine? And what treatment options are currently available?
- Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, for which Hotez is co-director, is collaborating with labs across the country, including the University of Texas Medical Branch, to develop a vaccine.
- “We have two vaccines we’re pursuing,” Hotez said, that may help protect against the type of coronavirus that COVID-19 originated from.
- “We can [actually] make a vaccine pretty quickly now,” Hotez said. “That’s not the hard part. ... The hard part is making certain that it’s safe and that it actually works.”
- Vaccines are the most thoroughly tested pharmaceuticals for safety, making it hard to accelerate the development process. The consequences of an improperly developed vaccine can be destabilizing in terms of public health as well as public policy. Hotez cited both a backlash to a dengue fever vaccine in the Philippines as well as a possible backlash from U.S.-based opponents to vaccines.
- Hotez said, “The mutation rate [for COVID-19] does not look that high, so the hope is that a single vaccine will last us for a long time.”
- As for using antimalarial medications to treat the virus, Hotez said, “Unfortunately, the evidence on that is not really strong.”
- Hotez is “most optimistic about” serum therapy in terms of treatment options, and he believes that “we can work pretty quickly” to learn more about its efficacy and possible uses.
What can we do to protect health care workers?
- Hotez said coronaviruses can have destabilizing effects on hospital systems.
- Citing a recent article from the Journal of the American Medical Association, Hotez said many health care workers in Wuhan contracted the virus and that more than 30 health care workers have died in Europe. If health care workers don’t feel safe coming to work everyday, he said, “that is going to be a major hurdle in fighting this epidemic.”
- When asked what measures should be taken to protect health care workers, Hotez recommended addressing the lack of protective personal equipment and improvements to protective guidelines.
The interview was streamed on the Tribune’s website, Facebook page and Twitter, as well as by our media partner KXAN to a live audience of more than 9,000 viewers.
Hotez serves as co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and is the founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. He has expertise in vaccine development and neglected tropical diseases and is leading several projects to develop new vaccines. More than a decade ago, Hotez and his team, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, developed a potential vaccine for the viral disease known as severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed hundreds in China in the late 2000s, but the project was abandoned due to lack of funding.
This virtual event series is supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Community Health Choice and Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas. Media support is provided by Univision and KXAN.
Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.
Disclosure: Baylor University, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Rice University and Texas Children's Hospital have been financial supporters of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.