Dr. Anthony Fauci says wrapping up his five-decade career in US public health has left him with a “bittersweet feeling.”
On the one hand, he’s proud of the work he’s done guiding his country through health crises including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, outbreaks of the Ebola and Zika viruses and, most prominently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
But he’s concerned about the increasingly divisive politics that dominates conversations about science, the threats he and his family have faced over his handling of COVID-19, and the rampant spread of misinformation and disinformation, which he says threatens not only public health, but democracy itself.
“There’s a lot of things that I’ve experienced with a great deal of intensity … over the last five decades now. And as you might imagine, it’s a bittersweet feeling thinking about leaving it,” Fauci told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.
Fauci will step down in December from his roles as US President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief of the NIAID Laboratory of Immunoregulation.
Going against the president
He has served under every US president since Ronald Reagan — most of the time, he says, amicably. But his public support for COVID-19 health measures sometimes put him at odds with Donald Trump, who often downplayed the severity of the virus and touted unproven and sometimes dangerous remedies.
Early in the pandemic, Fauci was appointed to the White House Coronavirus Task Force and was often seen side by side with Trump at news conferences. But as time went on, the tension grew between them about how to respond to the virus, and the Trump administration sidelined him.
Still, Fauci continued to speak out about the importance of physical distancing and masking, often in direct contradiction to Trump.
“I did not like the idea of having to publicly go against and disagree with the president of the United States. But I felt in order to maintain my own integrity and to fulfill my responsibility to the American public — and that’s who I’m responsible for to, no one but the American public — I felt I had to tell the truth. And if that truth happened to disagree with the president, so be it,” he said.
“I took no joy in that. It wasn’t a pleasure, something that I liked to do, because I have a great deal of respect for the office of the presidency of the United States. But sometimes you just have to go with what’s true, even though it’s a difficult situation and a difficult decision.”
The pursuit of truth, he says, has become more challenging in recent years, as “misinformation and the distortion of reality and conspiracy theories” abound.
“What I find even more disturbing is that the telling of untruths after a while becomes normalized so that people don’t push back and say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not true.’ And it’s very, very clear that it’s not true,” he said.
“When people can say things that are clearly untrue and deny reality, that is one of the steps towards the diminution of our democracy.”
Death threats and harassment
His work during COVID-19 also had a personal cost. His wife and three daughters were “harassed continuously in a very horrible way,” he said, alongside “credible” threats against his own life.
“That certainly is not something that makes you feel comfortable. But it’s part of my life, and I’ve chosen this life, and I just have to live with it.”
But COVID-19 isn’t the only time he’s faced loud criticism.
During his tenure, the US has made significant progress contributions to treating HIV/AIDS. But in the early days of that crisis, activists accused him of inaction that contributed to tens of thousands of deaths. Some of his greatest critics later saw him as a strong ally, but his role in handling the ’80s epidemic remains fraught.
Fauci also faced criticism for not encouraging masking during the early days of COVID-19. Two and a half years later, he admits he was wrong not to advise masking sooner, but stops short of calling it a mistake.
At the time, he says, the evidence was less clear, and masks were in short supply.
“What me and my colleagues in the public health sector did was utilize the data and the evidence as it existed at the time,” he said. “If we knew then what we knew now. We certainly would have made different recommendations. But part of science is evolving with the new information.”
‘I think we’re in a pretty good place’
As he gets ready to step down from public life, he says there’s a lot of work left to do. The pandemic is not over and US vaccination rates, he says, are lagging behind where they should be. Monkeypox has also been declared a public health emergency in the US
Still, Fauci remains hopeful.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place. I think that we will very likely be able to get a much better control of COVID in the sense of getting it to such a low level that it doesn’t disrupt our social order the way it has over the last two and a half years,” he said.
He also says he’s “confident” the US will get monkeypox under control, “hopefully in the next couple of months before I leave.”
As for what’s next, Fauci says he’s not entirely sure.
He says he’d like to “inspire a younger generation of scientists and would-be scientists … to get involved in public service, particularly in the realm of public health.”
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff.