Dr Anthony Fauci: How a warrior on the frontlines of the AIDS and Ebola epidemics became an American superhero
After President Trump opened the daily task force briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, many wondered why Dr Anthony Fauci, the 79-year-old infectious disease expert, was absent during the briefing. Panic broke out over social media as Dr Fauci has remained the sole voice of reason from the White House. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has now claimed more than 16,500 lives and with over 3,82,000 cases confirmed worldwide. The US has recorded over 46,000 cases and more than 580 deaths.
The 2019-2020 pandemic is not the first time Dr Fauci has been at the forefront of an infectious disease outbreak. More than 30 years ago, Dr Fauci was at the forefront during the AIDS epidemic in the United States during the 80s. He was instrumental in helping to change rules in order to approve drugs for the virus and the disease while he was doing research at the National Institute of Health (NIH).
He joined the National Institutes of Health in 1968, after completing his medical training at Weill Cornell Medical Center, and he has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease since 1984.
In an interview with Medscape, Dr Fauci spoke about how the AIDS epidemic affected him. He spoke of how he noticed the trend of gay men who were previously otherwise healthy but unusually, presented later with "pneumocystis carinii pneumonia" and other infections. He said, "With those 2 reports began the era of HIV/AIDS. We didn't yet know it was HIV, we weren't calling it AIDS, we knew that it was mysterious and we had no idea what caused it, and then from there unfolded historic events over the next 3 decades."
Dr Fauci said, "It was really at that point, as a physician-scientist, for one of the first times in my professional career, that I actually got goose pimples looking at something because I didn't know what it was. But I knew it was something new because I had been doing infectious disease for the previous 10 years. I hadn't seen anything like this, and I made a decision at that point in my career to turn around from what I was doing and to start pursuing this mysterious disease."
Dr Fauci is the recipient of many awards. President George W Bush presented him with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bush said Fauci’s work on AIDS in Africa reached millions of people, “preventing HIV infections in infants and easing suffering and bringing dying communities back to life.”
Even during the 2015 Ebola crisis, Dr Fauci was leading the fight against the new virus, often treating patients himself, including Dallas nurse Nina Pham, who was hospitalized at the Clinical Center for eight days in October 2015 and visited then-President Barack Obama after she recovered.
"I do believe that one gets unique insights into disease when you actually physically interact with patients," he said in an interview with Science Magazine. In the case of Ebola, Fauci says he also wanted to show his staff that he wouldn't ask them to do anything he wouldn't do himself; in addition, "it is very exciting and gratifying to participate in saving someone’s life."
Throughout the current pandemic, Dr Fauci has been at odds with Trump, largely due to the misinformation given by the US President. For example, after Trump played up a drug used to treat malaria as a potential "game-changer" in the fight against coronavirus, Fauci said the only evidence that the drug could be helpful was "anecdotal." Fauci has also contradicted Trump on the timetable for a vaccine and the severity of the outbreak.
Though Dr Fauci said in another interview that Trump does listen to him in "substantive issues," he admitted, "It is expressed in a way that I would not express it, because it could lead to some misunderstanding about what the facts are about a given subject."
Dr Fauci has also been uncomfortable with Trump's repeated references to the disease as the "Chinese virus," which critics have said is a xenophobic effort to blame foreign forces for the pandemic. He told Science Magazine that he has never used the term and never will.
Many took to social media to express panic after Dr Fauci's absence during Monday's press briefing. When Trump was asked about Dr Fauci's whereabouts, he responded. "He's a good man. I like Dr Fauci a lot, just so you understand. He is not here because we are discussing what he is best at but he will be back very soon.”
The fright reflected just how much the country had come to rely on the wisdom of the straight-talking doctor from New York as the coronavirus pandemic spreads, with the worst yet to come. For many anxious Americans tuning in from the confinement of their homes, Dr Fauci is a voice of reason in a time of deep uncertainty. His absence also raised concern over whether he might have been sidelined for contradicting the president and worries about whether Dr Fauci was in good health.
However, Dr Fauci had told Science Magazine that he is exhausted, "But other than that, I’m good." Moreover, Trump also said Dr Fauci was at a task force meeting during the press briefing.