Anthony Fauci entered a packed John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum to a standing ovation. Scores of cameras popped up from the mostly student crowd to capture the 82-year-old immunologist and virologist on stage.
Moderator Peter Staley, AIDS activist and Fauci’s longtime friend, noted the rousing reception as he introduced Fauci.
"In 2016, when I was an Institute of Politics Fellow here at HKS doing a study group on activism, I was allowed to bring a few guests,” Staley said. “You were generous enough to share your time with one of my study groups, but to my amazement, most of the students here didn't know who the hell you were. What changed?"
Everyone knows what changed, Fauci said. Before discussing the pandemic, Staley led the audience through Fauci's remarkable career as a clinical scientist in public service developing therapies that changed the course of many autoimmune diseases.
"You cured vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels. You turned a disease with a 98% fatality rate into one that had a 93% remission rate. You shot to the top of the reputation ladder after that."
Currently the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Fauci will retire at the end of the year after serving in the position for almost four decades.
“I really feel good about retiring,” Fauci said. “I feel enthusiastic about doing something that is different than what I've been doing, even though I love every single day. I ask myself, ‘what do I have to offer after all of this experience?’”
Reflecting on his remarkable career, Fauci said, “It's what I care about: public health, science, medicine, and including my perspective for the AIDS years. And hopefully inspiring young people who might be interested in public service. I don't mean that in a self-serving way, but perhaps get people inspired to do some things that have a positive impact on society.”
Staley, who has been HIV-positive since 1985, mentioned Fauci’s groundbreaking work on the AIDS virus noting, “unlike almost everyone else in the scientific community, you were more fascinated than repelled” in the early days when few understood the disease.
“I felt a challenge for the medical aspect of it, that this was a brand new disease,” Fauci said. “I had been trained simultaneously in immunology and in infectious diseases, and here was the disease that didn't have a name.” Fauci said, “We knew it was caused by an infectious agent, and it was destroying the immune system of these young men and killing them. So I decided I was going to put aside everything that I was doing successfully and focus like a laser on admitting and caring for these young men.”
He is very proud of his involvement in addressing AIDS. And his policy of speaking truth to power served him well, especially at the White House, where no one wanted to address AIDS or incorrectly blamed the victims. “I did that from the very beginning with Ronald Reagan and with George W. Bush. They learned to respect the fact that I would tell the truth, even though they didn't like the truth.”
He can’t say the same for the COVID pandemic. “COVID in the middle of political divisiveness is a bad combination that's for sure,” he said.
“Several decades ago, when people asked me what my worst nightmare was, I said it would an outbreak of a respiratory illness that’s brand new, that’s easily spread, has a high degree of morbidity and mortality, and jumps from the animal reservoir to a human,” Fauci said. “Right now we are living through my worst nightmare.”
But he wanted to set the record straight about “mask gate,” his early decision not to require masks which has made him a target for the far-right. “Should we have been wearing masks from the very first weeks when we had 10 people infected and one person died? Knowing what we know now, the answer would've been absolutely yes,” he admitted. But this was not flip-flopping, he insisted, but rather following the science.
“Science, which I'm sure most people in this audience know, is a self-correcting process,” Fauci explained. “You make a decision at a time X based on the data that you have. If the data changes you have an obligation as a scientist to change what you're saying based on the data.”
As for the gray area between public health and government, Fauci, who has served the past seven presidents, is very clear.
“As a public health official, you absolutely have to stay out of the political realm. You can be involved in policy, but you have to be out of anything that's political. And I feel very strongly about that,” Fauci said. “That's the only reason why I was able to successfully deal with seven presidents.”
“One of the things I had to do from the very beginning was make up my mind that as a physician and a scientist, the thing that matters is truth and reality. If you are going to deal in a public policy level with people like elected officials, presidents, and the senior staff around them, you've got to make up your mind that you will always tell the truth, even if the truth is inconvenient.”
The entire Institute of Politics Forum event is available online.
Photos by Martha Stewart