WASHINGTON (AP) — Long before the bobbleheads and the “Fauci ouchie,” Dr. Anthony Fauci a straight shooter on scary diseases — and “stick to the science” remains his mantra.
Fauci will be retiring at the end of the month from a five-decade career in public service, a career shaped at the beginning by the HIV pandemic and at the end by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Fauci said he leaves excited by the prospect of advancements such as the next generation of coronavirus vaccines, but is concerned that misinformation and outright lies mark a “very dangerous” time for public health and science.
“Falses abound and we’re almost normalizing falsehoods,” Fauci said. “I’m worried about my own health area, but I’m also worried about the country.”
Fauci, who will turn 82 on Christmas Eve, has been a physician scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 54 years, 38 of which were director.
Because he candidly translates complex science into plain English, Fauci has advised seven presidents from Ronald Reagan to Joe Biden on a long list of outbreaks — HIV, Ebola, Zika, bird flu, pandemic flu, even the 2001 anthrax attacks.
“Stick to the science and never be afraid to tell someone something that is the truth — but it’s an inconvenient truth in which there’s the possibility of the messenger being shot,” Fauci said. “Don’t worry about that. You just keep telling the truth.”
He added, with characteristic understatement, “That has served me very well, with one exception that, you know, the truth in one administration has caused a great deal of animosity towards me.”
For all his previous influence on national and even global responses to infectious diseases, Fauci only became a household name when COVID-19 crippled the world in early 2020. media interviews.
But in the end, Fauci had to contradict then-President Donald Trump’s attempts to downplay the seriousness of the viral threat and promote unproven treatments. Trump and his allies began attacking Fauci, who even received death threats requiring a security detail for his protection.
As the world enters another year of COVID-19, Fauci is still a frequent target of the far right, but he also remains a trusted voice for millions of Americans.
Under his tutelage, researchers at the National Institutes of Health laid the scientific foundation for the rapid development of potent coronavirus vaccines. An analysis released last week by the Commonwealth Fund found that the injections saved 3.2 million lives and prevented 18.5 million hospitalizations in the US alone.
With another winter uptick underway, Fauci is disappointed that only 14% of people eligible for the updated COVID-19 boosters – injections that protect against omicron strains – have received one.
“That doesn’t make any sense at all, if you have a vaccine that you know is life-saving,” he said. But he also looks forward to next-generation vaccines that can better prevent infections, citing promising leads such as nasal vaccines.
Despite all the political attacks, the public has struggled to understand why some of his and others’ health advice changed as the pandemic progressed — for example, why masks were first considered unnecessary and later made mandatory in certain places.
Fauci said one of the lessons of the pandemic is to better communicate that it’s normal for messages to change as scientists make new discoveries.
“That doesn’t mean you’re freaking out. That means you’re basically following the science,” he said.
Fauci has had a hand in life-saving scientific advancements for decades. As a young researcher at the National Institutes of Health, he helped develop highly effective therapies for rare but once-fatal blood vessel disorders known as vasculitis syndromes.
Then came the AIDS crisis and the days Fauci, treating patients at the NIH hospital, remembered as “very dark and very difficult.”
“As a doctor you are trained to heal people. And we weren’t healing anyone. Everyone died in front of us.”
Fauci created an AIDS division that, along with pharmaceutical companies and universities, led research into drugs that ultimately turned HIV into a manageable chronic disease. Later, under President George W. Bush, Fauci helped develop PEPFAR, the president’s contingency plan for AIDS, to bring those HIV drugs to poor countries. The program is credited with saving more than 20 million lives over the past 20 years.
But it took years to even get the first AIDS drugs — and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, irate activists protested what they saw as government indifference. Fauci brought the activists to the table, making it standard practice for patient advocates to have a say in government drug research decisions.
Unfortunately, he said, that experience cannot help bridge the current political divisions that harm public health.
The AIDS activists “were theatrical. They were iconoclastic. They were provocative. They were confrontational, all of the above. But the fundamental core message they had was a correct message,” said Fauci. “That’s vastly different from what’s going on right now with COVID, where falsehoods abound, conspiracy theories abound, distortions of reality abound.”
Despite that kind of resentment, Fauci is excited about recent scientific advances against a list of other scourges, including work on vaccines for malaria, tuberculosis, and perhaps one day HIV. That’s why Fauci, although he’s leaving the government, says he won’t retire.
“I will continue to lecture and write and I will try to encourage and inspire people to study science, medicine and public health,” he said. “There are a lot of things that are unfinished business that will be finished someday because science is going to do it.”
The Associated Press Health and Science division is supported by the Science and Educational Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.