In Defense of Dr. Anthony Fauci
“People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.”
--President Donald Trump, October 19, 2020
And so we have it, in a nutshell: The President of the United States, in the middle of the worst viral pandemic in a century, calling the nation’s leading infectious disease expert an “idiot.” He’s also called him a “disaster,” saying “if I’d listened to him, we’d have 500,000 deaths" (https://www.ajc.com/news/nation-world/trump-people-tired-of-covid-hearing-fauci-and-all-these-idiots/S52XE2CKGJGXNINVX7XGVS2HJI/ )
I have spent my entire professional life in healthcare, starting out as an orderly at St. Joseph’s Hospital the day after my high school graduation in 1980. It’s a legacy I take seriously, following in the footsteps of my father, a surgeon who practiced in Savannah for over 35 years. My father, whose greatest joy came from helping others, taught me from an early age about the inherently self-sacrificial nature of health care.
“At the end of the day, it’s always about the patient,” dad would say.
As a man who has dedicated his entire life to improving health care in this country, Dr. Fauci would agree.
Anthony Fauci grew up in Brooklyn, NY. The son of a pharmacist, he graduated first in his class from Cornell University Medical School in 1966. He was appointed as the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in 1984, a post he still holds today at age 79. He has served under six presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, and has been involved in the U.S. response to great public health challenges such as HIV, SARS, MERS, Ebola and the 2009 swine flu pandemic. His research has also been instrumental in understanding the immunology of rheumatologic diseases such as polyarteritis nodosa. The author or co-author of over 1000 scientific papers, he is recognized as one of the leading researchers in the world. Although he was initially vilified by AIDS activist Larry Kramer for his approach to the AIDS epidemic, Kramer eventually called Fauci “the only true and great hero” among government officials in the AIDS crisis.
Suffice it to say that Anthony Fauci is no idiot.
History will judge us all in retrospect. While we remain squarely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic (with 80,000 new cases, the U.S. set an all-time record for the number of COVID-19 infections reported in a single day on October 23, only to break that record the very next day), the President has repeatedly downplayed the impacts of the virus, publicly saying on at least 38 occasions that COVID-19 is simply going to magically disappear, including three times this month (https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2020/10/politics/covid-disappearing-trump-comment-tracker/). Dr. Fauci has irritated the President and many of his supporters because he is willing to say things that fly in the face of this false narrative. But Anthony Fauci is a man of science. He looks at the available data, analyzes it and comes to a logical conclusion. Unfortunately, that sort of evidence-based conclusion does not always jibe with individual political interests.
An article which recently ran in this newspaper criticized Dr. Fauci because he’s been “all over the place” with his pandemic recommendations. This sort of statement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of medical research.
Schools typically teach us to believe in absolutes—of truth and untruth, fact and fiction. Science is not like that. Instead, it is inherently fluid, evolving with the available data. If medical science were “settled,” we’d still be doing exorcisms on patients with seizures and applying leeches to bleed the evil humors from folks with pneumonia.
SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a novel viral pathogen that no one on earth had encountered before a year ago. Over the last 10 months or so, we’ve gained a greater understanding of how the virus is spread, who is at risk and how we can best treat it. The summary recommendations change as the database gets refined. Medical researchers, used to that sort of change, typically present data as a consensus recommendation to the public only after years of critically peer-reviewed studies have been analyzed. However, the rapid spread of COVID-19 has not afforded us that luxury. As a result, the general public has had the unfortunate experience of seeing how the medical sausage is typically made. That process isn’t always clean and neat--hence the seemingly conflicting recommendations on mask-wearing, ventilator use and hydroxycholoroquine. Physicians are trained to look at data critically in order to better gauge inherent bias and flaws in methodology. The average layperson is not.
Anthony Fauci has been a dedicated public servant for four decades. He has worked with impartiality under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Unlike many public officials, he has never once revealed a party affiliation. Dr. Fauci could have gone into industry and become quite wealthy. He could have bowed to political pressures to make statements supporting one party’s position or another. But his focus has always been upon what is best for this nation’s health. That steadfast dedication to science, and his refusal to be cowed into saying anything other than what he perceives to be the truth, has earned him the heavy burden of being an honest man in dishonest times. Dr. Fauci recently told the television show 60 Minutes that it was “sad” that “a public health message to save lives triggers such venom and animosity to me that it results in real and credible threats to my life.” His wife and children have also been threatened. This is unconscionable, for he is exemplary of what is most noble in my chosen profession. He is a true altruist, and a shining example for all of us.
The politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic is at the epicenter of our nation’s poor response to this crisis. Instead of vilifying people like Anthony Fauci for being unwilling to bend to political interests, we should be listening more intently to what they have to say. As COVID-19 cases mount and what looks to be a long and arduous winter comes upon us, people like Dr. Fauci deserve our profound respect, not our collective scorn.