After more than 38 years as the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci will be retiring this month. He also served 54 years as the director of the US National Institutes of Health. He was the director of the institute under seven US presidents. He also managed its response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014, the COVID-19 pandemic, and HIV/AIDS research. The 81-year old physician-scientist became a household face during the pandemic. He was regarded as a reliable source of advice and was criticized by former US president Donald Trump who found his advice inconsistent and overbearing. He was attacked on Twitter on 11/12/12Elon Musk, who took control of the social-media platform on October. Fauci spoke toNatureMusk’s comments about the pandemic, his legacy and his own legacy.
Looking back at your decades at NIH, which area of infectious diseases have you made the most progress in?
HIV is one of the most important. When HIV was first discovered, it was in 1981. [it was] A mysterious disease of unknown origin that was killing almost everyone who was infected. It was the worst time in my professional career as an infectious disease specialist. From that dark time of not knowing what was killing these mostly gay men, we moved on to the brighter side of things. [underlying virus]A diagnostic test, and a series of drugs within a few years have transformed the lives of HIV-positive people. Pre-exposure prophylaxis is another highly effective prevention method. [can treat] People who have been infected bring the virus down to a level below detectable levels so that they don’t pass it on to others.
We will see the next breakthrough in infectious disease research.
A safe and effective HIV vaccine is one of the most important achievements in infectious-disease research. We have made remarkable progress in the development of treatments for both prevention and treatment of disease. The one thing that has eluded us to this point is a safe and effective vaccine. That’s why we are excited about it. Another possibility is the possibility of a cure for HIV. This would allow you to have permanent suppression or elimination of the virus and eradicate it completely without any further treatment. Although we haven’t reached that point yet it is a worthy goal.
Francis Collins, the former director of NIH, was your boss. He lamented the absence of behavioural-science research that would help to understand misinformation better.About vaccines and other aspects in public health. Is it time to rethink how social science is integrated into ‘hard” biomedical science?
Yes, we do. You just have to do it. It is not difficult to integrate a discipline from the social sciences into the discipline that studies the hard sciences of vaccine development. It is alarming that 68% of our country’s population has been vaccinated against COVID. Only half of those who have received a boost have received it. Importantly, [despite] Only 13% of eligible people have received the effective BA.4/5/5 bivalent updated booster. This is very concerning and almost embarrassing.
How can behavioural sciences help in pandemic response beyond vaccine hesitancy?
COVID-19 has also highlighted the importance of mental well-being and paying attention to stressors. [the pandemic] has placed on society: not just on doctors and nurses, but also the general population, which includes children. [Their] Growth and development are key words [shaped] Not only are they missing school in person, but also the stress of losing grandparents or parents and the disruption to their childhood. All of this has had a significant negative impact on mental well-being.
We’ve seen governments censor scientists, deform data, and otherwise act in bad faith during the COVID-19 pandemic. This makes international collaboration to prevent pandemics challenging. How can researchers navigate this delicate line?
It’s impossible to answer. It’s difficult to answer that question if there are groups or countries that aren’t transparent. I hope that all countries around the world realize that there is no pandemic of infectious diseases spread by the respiratory route. It’s not possible for one country to have a pandemic. We saw this very clearly with COVID spreading around the globe, which has already caused close to seven million deaths. That’s probably a gross underestimate.
How would you rate the response of the world to the pandemic
It is very difficult to give fairness. [answer]Because you will die from a virus this powerful. The global community, including the United States of America, could have done more. The rapid development and deployment vaccines have been the only success story. The public-health response has not been as successful. This is an example of what has happened in this country. Our public-health system has been deteriorating over the years. [by] Not replacing people who have left, not keeping the equipment current, not getting [information] Accessible in real-time. To get real-time information, we had to travel to other countries, such as the UK, Israel, and South Africa. Unlike in our system of reporting, states don’t have the obligation to report to CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]The CDC must ask them to respond. This has to change.
Elon Musk, entrepreneur, demanded your prosecution on Sunday. He claimed that you lied about Congress and funded research that resulted in the deaths of millions of people. What are your thoughts on the tweets?
Max, I don’t pay much attention to it and don’t feel the need to respond. I don’t tweet. I don’t have Twitter. Most of the misinformation is irrelevant to me.
Given Musk’s immense reach on Twitter, do you feel your safety is in danger?
It is at risk. I always have federal agents with me. This creates a lot of hatred in people who don’t know why they hate–they hate because someone like that is tweeting about it.
What advice would you offer to scientists in their early stages of careers who may be considering changing their career path after witnessing some of the vitriol directed towards you and other public-health officials during this pandemic?
I encourage them to not be discouraged. The satisfaction and the level of contribution you can make in society by becoming a public servant or public health professional is unmeasurable. It’s truly amazing. It counters all the other bad stuff. It is unfortunate that public-health officials are being attacked. But you can still feel the satisfaction and the accomplishments. [achieve] The opportunities in the field are endless. It is undoubtedly superior to all other stuff.
I take it you are still forming your plans after you have left the director position, is that correct?
I will be writing and lecturing, and maybe even a little bit of both. [write] a memoir. But I’m not going to retire in the traditional sense.
This article was reproduced with permission. First published December 13, 2022