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Meet the federal government’s coronavirus expert

From left, Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, attend a briefing on the administration’s coronavirus response in the press briefing room of the White House on March 2 in Washington, D.C.

Whenever the U.S. is threatened by a virus, Anthony Fauci can usually be found sitting in front of a television camera explaining the situation to Americans.

For more than three decades, Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has served as the face of the federal government during public health threats. He has carefully cultivated a demeanor of calm urgency, one that TV hosts and bookers rely on to inform the public without inciting panic.

“He’s Mr. Authoritative. You want an authoritative statement or idea, you go to Tony. He says what he knows, and he doesn’t say what he doesn’t know. He’s not a bullshitter,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a former top Obama administration official and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, Fauci’s longtime friend.

Now, as the coronavirus has spread to more than 60 countries around the world, Fauci is once again in the spotlight. He has stood beside President Trump at two news conferences in recent days, and he has spent hours meeting with Vice President Pence, who is overseeing the administration’s response.

Fauci, 79, grew up delivering prescriptions to patients of his father’s pharmacy in Brooklyn, the rare Yankees fan in what at the time was Dodgers territory. He attended a prestigious New York City high school before college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and medical school at Cornell. He signed up to work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1968, pressed into service by the demand for doctors during the Vietnam War.

“My interest in medicine stems from my keen interest in people, in asking questions and solving problems,” he told an oral historian in 1989.

Fauci rose through the ranks at NIH, tapped to become director of NIAID in 1984 under former President Reagan. In that post, Fauci has become a top adviser to six presidents, the translator who can describe dense scientific information in an accessible manner with his thick Brooklyn accent. Inside administrations, as political appointees struggle to wrap their heads around an epidemic crisis, Fauci makes clear both the stakes and the proper responses, say those who have been in Oval Office meetings with him.

“Tony combines being super smart, super able to communicate very clearly, with a very deep ethical commitment to doing the right thing,” said Tom Frieden, who was director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under former President Obama. “He’s always able to state things clearly. He has the respect of everyone.”

That skill has also made Fauci a go-to interview for shows ranging from “Meet the Press” and “Fox News Sunday” to “The Colbert Report” and “Good Morning America.”

Fauci’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.

But in previous interviews, he has described a leadership style borne of intimate conversations that grew out of his work as a leading HIV and AIDS researcher in the 1980s, at the height of a growing pandemic that spread fear and anxiety through the gay community in New York and San Francisco.

When AIDS activists descended on the NIH campus calling for Fauci’s resignation, Fauci took the unusual step of inviting the protesters in to talk about the clinical trials underway.

“What I did is that I brought them into my office, the first time ever anybody did. So rather than have them arrested, I sat down and started to listen to what they were saying,” Fauci recalled in an interview with David Hunter, the dean of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “And it became clear to me that despite the drama, despite the theater, they were making absolute perfect sense, that it was unconscionable for the government, when you have no alternative, to go by the old rules.”

The AIDS activists earned their seat at the table, and Fauci learned a lesson he has employed through several crises: Leveling with Americans about the threats they face builds trust in the very health institutions that become the barrier between an outbreak and a pandemic disaster.

“You have to manage expectations. And you have to never overpromise, and never be afraid to speak with reality, the truth,” Fauci told Hunter. “I mean, one of the problems people have is that they’re afraid to say, ‘I don’t really know, and I can’t give you an answer.’ And there are a lot of times, particularly in science, where you just can’t, because a lot of science is discovery.”

That expectations-setting sometimes flies in the face of the calm that presidential administrations try to project in times of crisis — perhaps never more so than now, as a new coronavirus spreads across the world. Fauci had been booked for several Sunday shows over the weekend, but he canceled them after Pence became the point person for the administration’s response efforts.

Fauci told associates he had been instructed to clear future interviews through the White House. At a White House press conference Saturday, Fauci denied he had been muzzled.

“I have never been muzzled ever, and I’ve been doing this since the administration of Ronald Reagan. I’m not being muzzled by this administration,” Fauci said. “What happened, which was misinterpreted, is that we were set up to go on some shows, and when the vice president took over, we said let’s regroup and figure out how we’re going to be communicating. So I had to just stand down on a couple of shows and resubmit for clearance. And when I resubmitted for clearance, I got cleared.”

Fauci appeared on a panel Monday with other health experts at Harvard. That same day, he discussed the coronavirus in an interview with NBC News.

“We’re dealing with clearly an emerging infectious disease that has now reached outbreak proportions and likely pandemic proportions,” he said. “If you look at, you know, by multiple definitions of what a pandemic is, the fact is this is multiple sustained transmissions of a highly infectious agent in multiple regions of the globe.”

Fauci’s friends and allies in the public health world say he stays away from partisan politics. At a recent dinner, he and Emanuel spoke instead about their travels, the three daughters each of them has, and a scientific article on intermittent fasting that had caught Fauci’s eye.

“I couldn’t tell you what his political affiliation is. I think it’s American first,” Emanuel said.

With the coronavirus spreading, and as the Trump administration is criticized for its reaction to the virus, Fauci will find himself once again before the cameras.

“Especially in an emergency, it’s really important that professionals tell the public what they know when they know it. That’s how you earn and maintain the public’s trust,” Frieden said. “And you need the public’s trust in an emergency, because you’re going to have to rely on the public to take certain actions, whether it’s washing your hands more often or if it comes to that, not going to school or work for a time.”

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus outbreak Donald Trump

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