Dr. Fauci Defends COVID Decisions as Cases Rise
The virologist says science is a “moving target.”
As COVID cases rise again, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the world's leading virus expert, is back in the news. In a candid interview with Mehdi Hasan on MSNBC, Fauci, the face of America's COVID-19 response, tackled several controversial topics. He discussed the fluctuating nature of science during the pandemic, emphasized that economic pressures did not influence public health decisions during the Biden administration, and steered clear of political discussions on the mental fitness of Presidents Trump and Biden. Fauci also clarified his stance on the lab leak theory, the gain of function controversy, and spoke out against threats from the far-right, revealing the personal challenges he faced and his unwavering commitment to public health. Read on to delve deeper into his insights.
Asked to look back into the tougher years of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci was put on the spot because "you defended the CDC guidelines that changed at the time. You'll remember cutting the isolation period for infected people in the middle of the Omicron surge. And you called it a prudent and good choice even though it came less than a week after Delta Airlines infamously had lobbied the CDC to cut those guidelines. And I have to ask, when we were being told to follow the science, were we at times also following the dictates of big business?"
"It wasn't the dictates of big business, it's that we didn't really know the full extent," said Dr. Fauci. "I mean the science was a moving target. It really was. And I think that's one of the critical issues that unfortunately and inadvertently led to some of the skepticism about scientists because you tend to think of science as absolutely immutable. What's true today is going to be true tomorrow and going to be true a month from now when you're dealing with math." But that's not always the case with a virus.
Hasan pressed Fauci about the "economic argument to get the economy going—that must have weighed on public health officials." "I have to tell you that economic pressure did not in the Biden administration certainly influence any public health issues," said Fauci. Hasan pointed out that Fauci was choosing his words carefully—mentioning Biden but not Trump.
Dr. Fauci was asked if Trump or Biden were mentally fit for office, given their age. "There's no chance I'm going to get into political discussion," said Fauci. "The one thing I can tell you is that I spent two years with Joe Biden in the White House, and he is quite mentally sharp and…They're both mentally sharp." "Really?" asked Hasan. Even when Trump wondered if putting disinfectant in your body would kill COVID? "No. No. There's a difference between mentally sharp and bad judgment," said Fauci.
"Let's talk about a big controversy surrounding you," said Hasan. "For the first year of the pandemic, you were categorical in dismissing the so-called lab leak theory on COVID origin. You pointed to studies that the virus was most likely zoonotic. It had come out of the wet market from animals to humans, but we now know the scientific consensus wasn't as settled as perhaps we were led to believe. Late last year, you began telling reporters that you have an open mind on the lab leak theory. So do you regret your earlier public dismissals of the lab leak theory, and would you concede those dismissals fueled mistrust in public health officials?"
"I think if you go back many—it wasn't a dismissal. It was my opinion of what I felt was the most likely cause of the outbreak. I had always had an open mind, always had. I didn't articulate by the way I have an open mind. I just was very open," said Fauci.
He added: "If you look at someone who immediately says it's a lab leak without any data, it's a lab leak as opposed to looking at the context of going back. The original SARS clearly turned out to be from a bat to an intermediate host to a human mares bat intermediate host human."
Dr. Fauci addressed the gain of function controversy surrounding him. "If you look at the operative definition of gain of function, written down not by NIH people, but by a three-year iterative process involving OSTP, involving the National Academies of Science involving multiple working groups, the operative definition was that we put aside gain of function. That's so confusing. What a gain of function is that any research that needs to be brought up to a greater degree of scrutiny had to be researched at that time. The operative definition that actually was making an enhancement of the pathogenesis or the transmissibility of a pathogen that is highly likely known to be very transmissible, giving morbidity and mortality in humans. And the studies that were done that were funded through a United States organization with a sub-award, EcoHealth Alliance to EcoHealth Alliance, were looking at bat viruses that have never been shown to infect humans. So by definition, the operative definition of the gain of function of concern, the NIH was not funding that. And that's when I said so."
Hasan played a clip of Ron DeSantis saying about Fauci: "I'm just sick of seeing him. I know he says he's going to retire. Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the curb." Is that a threat of violence in Fauci's ears? "It's a complicated issue, but I have become by people who know nothing about me, who don't investigate what I've said—I've become the symbol of what the far-right extremists feel, that I'm the one who had to in an uncomfortable way. I wasn't pleased with that. I wasn't happy to do it, and I had to publicly disagree with the President of the United States. That was very painful for me because I have a great deal of respect for the presidency of the United States. But I felt in order to just maintain my own personal and professional integrity and my responsibility to the American public, I had to say it like it was, and I had to do it publicly. That triggered a degree of negativity towards me. On the part of the far right, all of a sudden, when you have anger, in some cases maybe justifiable anger of one ideological group against the other, you need a symbol. Like somebody has got to be the object of the anger."
Dr. Fauci continued: "What happens is that if you become the symbol of the object of people's anger, even people who know nothing about the fact that in my career I've been involved in saving literally millions of lives that people forget that is that I become that symbol. And then when they say something like that, you get somebody who doesn't know anything at all about me who's crazy, says, wow, I'm going to go get that person, or that person should be killed or that person should be prosecuted. And that's the reason why I have to have security. Governor DeSantis doesn't personally want to hurt me. He doesn't" but he is "triggering in people who are bad and really want to hurt people. That's the problem."
Dr. Fauci said he never broke down during the pandemic and all the attacks. "It never did. And that's just my constitution that I focus regardless of the people who think I'm evil. I focus on what my role and my mission is. And my mission is from the time I became a physician as a young man is to devote everything I do to the health and the welfare of my patients. And when you are an individual, a physician in an office, you do everything you can to help your patient. When you become a public health official and someone that was put in the position that I was put in where you had influence that was not only nationally but globally, the entire population of the country becomes your patient. So when your patient is sick, it doesn't make a bit of difference how tired you are or how harassed you are. You take care of your patient. So when you saw me sort of working four hours of sleep and not eating and losing weight, I mean, I'm not saying that a hero in that, but that's what you do when you accept the responsibility to take care of your patients."