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As the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 wreaked havoc throughout the United States and the world in 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci was often described as America’s doctor, a steady public presence who explained the nature of the deadly disease to the nation, the steps needed to curb its spread and the work being done to develop treatments and a vaccine.
While this devastating pandemic is unlike any health crisis in the past century, the 79-year-old director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has brought more than five decades of knowledge to this pivotal moment in our nation’s history, along with keen political skills and a commitment to straight talk.
“Tony is without peer in the world of global health as an authoritative, experienced and candid figure,” said Michael Leavitt, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. “He has been the teacher of public officials and the overseer of the public conscience. He speaks truth to power and it’s always, ‘just the facts.’”
If every president in the past 40 years were quizzed about who influenced their views on matters related to infectious disease, “Tony’s name would be first on the list,” Leavitt said. “I guarantee the same thing would be true of past health secretaries.”
During congressional testimony in early March 2020, Fauci offered a sobering picture of COVID-19, and what the United States could face in the weeks and months ahead. In television appearances and at the White House podium, he explained the health risks and the need for social distancing. He also tactfully sought to tamp down overly optimistic statements about the reopening of the shuttered economy, the effectiveness of an anti-malarial drug to treat the disease and the timeline for development of a vaccine.
“Tony is a rare individual. He understands science, manages a scientific institution and communicates the science to federal leaders and the public. Not a lot of people can do that,” said Dr. Peter Jay Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. “Politically, he threads the needle. He is not ideological. He is pragmatic and always puts the country first.”
In January 2020, Fauci began focusing behind the scenes on organizing efforts to develop COVID-19 treatments and a vaccine, according to Dr. Clifford Lane, NIAID’s deputy director of clinical research and special projects. In April, the NIH announced a sweeping public-private partnership between federal researchers and 16 pharmaceutical companies.
“He has been in constant communication with leaders at the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization, pharmaceutical company executives, the Biomedical Advance Research and Development Authority, the Gates Foundation and others to try and make things happen,” Lane said.
Fauci began his career at NIAID in 1968 and quickly made important contributions to understanding the regulation of the human immune response, helping to develop effective therapies for formerly fatal inflammatory and immune diseases.
In 1984, Fauci was named director of NIAID, and he now oversees a research budget of almost $6 billion that focuses on preventing, diagnosing and treating infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Over the years, Fauci and NIAID have led federal efforts to combat diseases caused by emerging viruses, including SARS, swine flu, H1N1, West Nile, MERS, Ebola, Zika and now, COVID-19.
In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, Fauci and a number of political leaders became the target of angry protests by HIV/AIDS activists who demanded access to experimental drugs as the death toll from the disease mounted. Fauci listened, met with the protesters and worked tirelessly to expand access to the medications being tested without jeopardizing ongoing clinical trials.
“It was a remarkable moment for the activists, for NIH and for the country,” said Maria Freire, the president and executive director of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health. “Tony made AIDS real for the American public. It wasn’t about gays or politics, it was about an infectious disease, a scientific and medical emergency with people suffering and dying.”
On the scientific level, Fauci has made important contributions to understanding how HIV destroys the body’s defenses and leads to deadly infections. In addition, he was one of the principal architects of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a program launched in 2003 that has saved millions of lives throughout the developing world.
On a personal level, colleagues describe Fauci as a mentor, as an individual willing to give others credit and praise, and as someone who is “extraordinarily available, generous with his time and always willing to help.” They also noted that he has had several opportunities to become the director of NIH but turned down those offers to stay closer to the science.
While running a multibillion-dollar institute, Fauci often has managed to set aside time to treat patients. In 2015, for example, he helped care for a Dallas nurse at the NIH Clinical Center who had become infected with the Ebola virus. When she was released from the hospital, Fauci was there to greet her and give her a big hug in front of the cameras.
“He was telling the world not to be afraid. Welcome to society. It was an important signal,” Freire said.
In 2016, Fauci told the New Yorker magazine that he decided early in his career to “only speak the truth, based on evidence.”
“You stay completely apolitical and non-ideological, and you stick to what it is that you do. I’m a scientist and I’m a physician. And that’s it,” Fauci told the magazine.