ST. LOUIS — Dr. Daniel Hoft is the director of the Saint Louis University Center for Vaccine Development, one of only 10 National Institutes of Health-funded Vaccine Treatment Evaluation Units in the country.
During the pandemic, the Columbia, Missouri, native worked around the clock, in both clinical settings caring for COVID-19 patients, and in research settings, studying the best ways to mitigate the virus. He and his staff were considered essential.
But Hoft’s interest in vaccines and infectious diseases started long before March 2020. After working as a paramedic for a few years post-undergrad, he joined the Peace Corps and moved to a Malaysian island to study malaria. There, he found his calling.
Hoft is now one of the leading vaccine experts in the country, and filled us in on his journey to his current position, his thoughts on the vaccine, and his life outside research.
How did you first become interested in infectious diseases? I was interested in medicine, but I also was interested in public health, so instead of going straight from undergraduate to medical school, I completed a couple of additional life experiences. I worked as a paramedic in Kansas City for a couple years, and then I went into the Peace Corps and served as a senior malaria technician working on a malaria control operation on the island of Borneo [in Malaysia]. That was the first time I was really focused on infectious diseases, and I saw the extent of how important infectious diseases are to the world, and I was hooked.
What was most meaningful about your time in Borneo? Part of my job was going door to door, asking people if they had a fever. For people that had a significant fever, 80% of the time it turned out to be malaria. And about 90% of those times, it was the worst virulent form of malaria. So, just seeing all of the morbidity that was happening from this one infectious disease that had pretty much been conquered in most developed countries like ours was just an incredible eye opener to me. In the rain forest, most underprivileged people were nutritionally fine because the jungle is quite rich with wild fruits and vegetables and animals. But they had not developed economically, and were deprived from everything, including health care. I grew up in a family where it was important to follow a moral path, and try to make a contribution to society, and I decided that would be mine.
When did immunology become part of the mix? I knew when I started medical school that I was very interested in infectious disease because of that experience studying malaria. I knew I wanted to make that my life's work. I wanted to finish medical school and do my residency in internal medicine, and then specialize in infectious disease. But what I didn’t know was how interested I would become in immunology and vaccinology.
Today, you act as the head of Saint Louis University’s Center for Vaccine Development. How has it felt to be in this position during the Covid-19 pandemic? Well, it's been very exciting, very challenging, and scary sometimes. But overall, I'd say it has been rewarding to have spent 40 years of training, from when I first knew that I wanted to go into infectious disease and had an inkling I was interested in vaccinology, to now. To think that training went to some good and to be able to do something that can help the world is what's been driving me.
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