Dr. Anthony Fauci Would Like to Set the Record Straight
Everyone seems to have an opinion about Dr. Anthony Fauci. For those on the left, the famed physician and immunologist who led America’s Covid-19 response under presidents Trump and Biden is a beacon that steadily guided the country through the pandemic darkness. For those on the right, as the face of the federal government’s Covid response, he is to blame for any and all pandemic-mitigation measures inflicted upon the American public — plus may be guilty of a “cover-up” (Tucker Carlson’s words) regarding the origins of Covid, since his National Institutes of Health funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology where some believe the virus originated.
The pandemic put Fauci in what he calls an “uncomfortable position” as a deeply partisan figure, even though he’d served as an advisor to every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
“The people who know anything about me — not the people who tweet nonsense about me, but the people who really know me — know that I’m a completely apolitical person,” Fauci tells Rolling Stone. “I’m not a Republican; I’m not a Democrat. I don’t get involved in all that.”
Those who wish to learn more about Fauci can tune in to American Masters: Dr. Tony Fauci, a new documentary airing the night of March 21 on PBS. The filmmakers followed Fauci for a 23-month period, starting with Biden’s inauguration in Jan. 2021 and ending in the early months of his retirement. There are fascinating fly-on-the-wall moments, such as Trump son-in-law/advisor Jared Kushner phoning Fauci during the Biden inauguration and singing his praises (“It’s been an honor working with you and thank you for your help during this challenging period,” he tells him) and Fauci complaining about “asshole” Republican Rep. Jim Jordan after a particularly boorish bout of congressional grandstanding. American Masters: Dr. Tony Fauci also explores the 82-year-old’s 50-plus-year medical career, from his humble beginnings in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to his time at the NIH (1968-2022) and his tenure as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (1984-2022), where he was at the forefront of the response to combatting HIV/AIDS, swine flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and Covid-19.
In a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone, Fauci discussed everything from the lessons he learned from his father to the lab-leak theory and possible origins of the Covid pandemic.
How’s retirement going for you? What are you liking about it and what are you not liking about it?
You know, it’s interesting because it’s not “retirement” in the sense of not doing things. I was at the NIH for 54 years, and I was the director of the Institute for 38 years, so I stepped down from those official government roles — and also being the chief medical advisor to President Biden — but the things I’m doing right now are the continuation of commitments I made when I was the director. I say “retirement” tongue-in-cheek, because when I decided to step down at the end of 2022, it was not with the intention of essentially going to play golf, going to a beach, or getting a boat and sailing around the world, which I couldn’t do even if I wanted to since I don’t like sailing. [Laughs] What I’ve done is I’ve been giving a number of lectures, writing a number of prospectives and commentaries, and I very likely will associate myself with a university medical center. I will stay in Washington, D.C. I’ve been here 54 years and don’t see myself physically leaving. It isn’t really retirement.
You mention in the documentary how, during your time under Trump, you would regularly receive late-night calls from a blocked number that was always Trump, who would then proceed to berate you for clarifying the disinformation he spread about Covid. What was the wackiest late-night call you got from Trump?
Well, I wouldn’t say “wacky.” It just was one of those things where the tension between me and the president — less so the president than the people around him, but he felt strongly about [Covid] — put me in this uncomfortable position. We’d be up there on the podium of the press room in the White House, and the president would get up and say something like, “Hydroxychloroquine is going to be a cure,” or “the virus is going to disappear like magic next month,” and then, since I would be standing there with him, the press would say, “What do you think, Dr. Fauci?” And, in order to preserve my own personal and professional integrity, but more importantly to fulfill my obligation to the American public as a public health official, I had to do something very uncomfortable, which was say, “No I’m sorry, I disagree. Hydroxychloroquine does not work. And it won’t disappear like magic.” Then, the press would call me up and ask me to amplify on that, and I would go through the data on why it’s clear that this isn’t going to disappear, and why there’s no evidence whatsoever that hydroxychloroquine, or bleach, or anything else works. [Trump] would read that in the paper and call me and go, “Why can’t you be more positive about it?” and my response would be, “Gulp, I’m sorry I can’t be, because I need to be responsible about it.”
You looked like your soul was leaving your body during those press conferences.
Yup. Yup… It’s uncomfortable because the far-right have interpreted that as I was nefariously trying to harm Trump, which absolutely was the furthest thing from the truth. I’m fundamentally about science. So, they didn’t understand that I didn’t like the fact that I had to get up and contradict the President of the United States. It’s not like I did it, went home to my wife, and said, “Hey, look what I did today!” That’s not how it happened. It was a very uncomfortable situation to be in.
I think if hydroxychloroquine actually worked Jair Bolsonaro would be in much better health than he’s in right now.
There was a recent study in The Lancet that claimed that the natural immunity from an existing Covid infection provides protection on a par with two doses of the mRNA vaccine. The anti-vax crowd has cited this as justification for not getting vaccinated.
The whole idea of what natural infection-induced immunity is has been misconstrued by the people who are anti-vax in misrepresenting public health officials as saying that infection-induced immunity is no good and doesn’t work. That’s never been the case. I keep repeating over and over and over again that infection-induced immunity is good, and it can protect you from reinfection. What the CDC are saying, and I agree with them, is that even with infection-induced immunity you dramatically increase it if you also get vaccinated. It doesn’t say that “natural immunity,” another word for “infection-induced immunity,” doesn’t work. It says that a hybrid immunity is better. Another thing is that infection-induced immunity is much more difficult to monitor because some people think they got infected and they didn’t get infected; they may have gotten infected and had just a few symptoms, which doesn’t give them a lot of immunity; or they may have gotten very sick, which gives them a lot of immunity. So, it is variable. But the misconstruing that public health officials say that natural immunity doesn’t work is not true. It absolutely works. But that plus vaccine brings it to a higher level of protection.
Do you feel like we’re taking Covid seriously enough right now in America? Most of the country just seemed to reach the point of “enough is enough,” and the Biden administration even declared the pandemic “over.”
Well, I think we have to put it in the context that we’re in an unprecedented situation. In 1918, the historic pandemic influenza was even worse than this. It killed 50-100 million people worldwide. But we’ve never had a situation as serious as this that’s lasted now going into its fourth year. We are in year four. It started in January of 2020. Having said that, we are tired of Covid. Everybody wants to put Covid in the rearview mirror and say, “We’re done with it,” so it’s a natural, understandable, though not necessarily correct viewpoint that we’re out of the woods. One thing is true: We’re much better off now than we were a year and a half ago. A year and a half ago, we were getting 800,000-900,000 infections and 3,000-4,000 deaths. Today, we’re having 300-400 deaths a day. Even though that’s much better than where we were, it’s not where the endgame should be. Because that means you’re talking about up to 3,000 deaths per week, which is really a high level. So, to your point: Are we underestimating Covid now? Yes, because we’re so used to it that we’re accepting a level of infection and death that under any other circumstance would be alarming.
And there are the lingering effects, or long Covid.
That’s also true. The percentage of people that have lingering symptoms varies from five to 25 percent, depending upon what study you look at. Persistence of symptoms, or the appearance of new symptoms, can be troublesome — but ultimately, they can also disappear. What we don’t know today is what percentage of people years from now are going to have a higher incidence of heart disease, stroke, or myocardial infarction. We don’t know that. The data are starting to point to people with Covid, compared to those that didn’t, having a higher incidence of all kinds of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease. If that’s true, given the enormous amount of people who have been infected and gotten Covid, this could be a serious public health problem for the future.
Those opposed to masking have pointed to a recent Cochrane Library review that found wearing a mask made “little to no difference” in how many people caught Covid.
The Cochrane study, and the interpretation of the Cochrane study, is deeply flawed — to the point that the writers of the Cochrane study came out with a statement saying, “Our study is being misinterpreted. We did not say masks don’t work.” And in fact, if you look at and unpack that study, the only study that showed only Covid and masks were two studies, and both of them showed that masking was beneficial. So, in reality, it actually shows that masks work. Forget all these people that were quoting the Cochran study and saying, “A-ha! I told you that masks don’t work!” Even the organizers of the Cochran study are saying that’s not so.
There’s a candid moment in the documentary where you apologize for your messaging on masking early on in the pandemic. On March 8, 2020, you said, “Right now, in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks.” Wouldn’t common sense lead you to believe that masking was good, since it was so effective in battling SARS-CoV-1?
The point I was trying to make was that my statements in January, February, and early March were based on data as we knew it. We did not know aerosol transmission occurred. We did not know that 50 to 60 percent of the transmission were from those asymptomatic. We were told there was a shortage of masks. There were no studies to show that masks actually work. So, when I said, “I don’t think people should be wearing masks,” I based that on the data that we had. However, as the months went by and it became clear, a) that there’s no shortage of masks, b) aerosol transmission is important, c) many studies show that masks work, and d) 50 to 60 percent of the transmissions occur from someone with no symptoms, I changed my mind and said masks should be worn. You can say that’s flip-flopping — I guess you could — but it really is following the data. Now, the reason that I sort of apologized in the documentary is about something you said: Common sense should have told us early on that you’re not sure masking works, but why not wear ‘em? That’s probably what I should have said back then. Common sense should have told us early on that it can’t hurt and likely can help.
One scene in the documentary that’s quite powerful sees you listening to angry voicemails you’ve received — including a number of death threats. You have a very emotional response to it. You also say in the documentary that “disinformation and misinformation kills.” With all that in mind, how do you feel about the role that Fox News and Tucker Carlson — who hosts the most popular news program in the country — have played throughout the pandemic in spreading disinformation regarding Covid and its effects?
I don’t want to go tit for tat with Fox News. They come after me every night for things that I haven’t said and haven’t done. Turn on Fox News, and somebody’s going to be saying something about me. All of that is a sea of disinformation, misinformation, and untruths. And the reason they attack me is that I represent something that’s very inconvenient for them: The truth. I think that the misinformation and disinformation, whether it’s on Fox News or any other place, if it gets someone who otherwise would have been vaccinated who did not get vaccinated, or who otherwise would have worn a mask who didn’t wear a mask, it is without a doubt that that will lead to unnecessary suffering and even death. There’s no doubt that misinformation and disinformation does kill.
How close did Trump get to dying from Covid? I think a lot of people memory-holed this, but the guy got obliterated by Covid, was airlifted to the hospital, and spent several days there — only to emerge and host large indoor rallies for tens of thousands of people and poo-poo the severity of Covid. As a public health professional, were you watching all this like, what the fuck is going on here?
[Laughs] I did not take care of him as his primary physician, so I am reluctant to comment on the seriousness of his illness. But, from what we hear indirectly, he was pretty sick. Nobody’s denying that. He was sick enough to require hospitalization and treatment. That means it’s more than a “common cold.” He could have used the unfortunate situation of his having gotten ill in a very productive way to tell the public, “We’re dealing with a serious issue here. What you need to do is take care and prevent yourself from getting infected.” That should have been the lesson and not, “Oh, it’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it.” It was a missed opportunity to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to get a really clear public health message across.
I wanted to discuss the lab-leak theory regarding the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In the documentary you say, “The microbe they were working on not only wasn’t SARS-CoV-2, it would be molecularly impossible for them to turn it into SARS-CoV-2.” Can you explain to me what evidence we have that it was a lab leak, and what evidence we have that it wasn’t?
First of all, I’ll make it loud and clear: I have a completely open mind since nothing has been definitively proven one way or the other. So, if it turns out it’s one or the other, I will totally embrace it if the evidence is definitive. Number two: Even with an open mind, you look at the scientific data that is available to you, and what do we have as evidence that it’s a lab leak? Nothing but the coincidence that it evolved in a city that people were studying these types of viruses. But there were many other cities in China — Beijing, Shanghai, Qingyuan — that were all studying it. So, that’s very weak evidence. Evolutionary virologists from multiple different countries, with no agendas, have examined this very carefully from a virological, epidemiological, and geospatial situation, and have published in the peer-reviewed journal Science in August of 2022 rather compelling suggestion-evidence — not definitive, but highly suggestive — that it was actually a natural occurrence from an animal to a human. Just yesterday, The Atlantic came out and gave even stronger evidence that it was from an animal in the Wuhan market, likely a raccoon dog or some other.
Then you ask yourself: What about historical precedent? What historical precedent is there for a completely brand-new virus — not one that people have been working on for decades where someone infects themselves in a lab; I’m not talking about a lab accident — being created in the lab? The historical precedent for that is zero. What is the historical precedent for viruses jumping species from animals to humans, causing a pandemic? Let me count the ways. The 1918 influenza. The 2009 swine flu. HIV/AIDS. Ebola. Zika. SARS-CoV-1. MERS. There are multiple examples of that. So, when people say, “It’s equally likely, one versus the other,” that defies the scientific evidence.
A number of your detractors have pointed to “gain-of-function” research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They point to your testimony before Congress stating that the NIH “has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” But a cache of NIH documents published by The Intercept revealed that it was involved in “gain-of-function research of concern,” or making viruses more transmissible to study their patterns.
What they’re not doing is, if you look at what the guidelines are for something to be elevated to further scrutiny, it was the following: it had to be experiments designed to enhance the pathogenesis or transmissibility of a virus that’s known to spread widely and cause wide mortality in humans. The bat viruses that were studied have never been shown to infect humans, so by definition, for goodness’ sakes, it doesn’t fit into the definition of gain-of-function! That’s the reason why I said, when asked if we were funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan, if you look at the design of the experiments, it did not fit into the P3CO guidelines — and P3CO is Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight — and those were guidelines that were developed not by us, but by an independent group of officers acknowledging policy at the White House and the National Academies of Sciences. So, people who keep saying that are not looking at what the experiments were nor were they looking at what the current definition was of gain-of-function.
There are some powerful scenes in the documentary of you during the AIDS crisis — including one in particular where you met with about a hundred fired-up members of ACT UP who hit you with a barrage of questions — and then we cut to the present, and it turns out you befriended a number of the activists and formed decades-long friendships with them. What did you learn from the AIDS crisis as far as the relationship between empathy and your job, and how did it inform your approach to Covid?
I think you picked the right word, and the word is “empathy.” It was very clear to me that they were reacting to the rigidity of the process that was being used to address this emerging catastrophic pandemic among a select group of people — gay men at the time, and to a lesser extent injection drug users. And what they wanted to do was they wanted to get our attention to at least listen to them. And the reason why this is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my professional career is, instead of looking at the confrontation, the iconoclastic behavior, the fact that they were attacking me because I was the so-called face of the federal government — even though I was doing research to try to help them and understand the disease, nonetheless I was the face of the federal government — they needed to gain my attention, and if you just listened to what they were saying, put aside the theatrics and the disruptive behavior, what they were saying was making perfect sense, and if I were in their shoes I would have done exactly what they were doing. So, that is, a) empathy, and b) keeping an open mind to what people are saying.
That is very different from today, when all you have is egregious misinformation and disinformation. What the AIDS activist were doing was they were being disruptive and theatrical, but they were talking about correct information. There’s a big difference there. People will contrast the two and say, “Well, you were being attacked in the Eighties by the AIDS activists, and now you’re being attacked in 2022 and 2023 by the far extreme right.” I mean, that’s apples and watermelons difference.
I wanted to wrap this up by asking about your father. There’s a touching moment in the documentary where you’re discussing your father and his neighborhood pharmacy, and you mention witnessing how your father helped the community and gave people prescription medication even when they couldn’t afford it. What lessons did you learn from him, and how did they serve as your polestar in your medical career?
It was important. It was the seed from the time I had consciousness about what life was about. The theme throughout my family, particularly my father — and my mother too — was caring for other people. It was the highest calling. And, fortunately for me, that theme was cultivated further in my Jesuit education in high school and in college, where the theme was: “Men for others.” Not “men for yourself.” (I use “men” because there were no women, and it was an all-boys school.) My father had that theme. It was not about him. It was not about making money. It was about caring for other people. And that became natural to me.