The nation’s leading infectious disease expert will soon step down from his role after more than five decades of government service. News4 recently sat down with Dr. Anthony Fauci at his home to talk about his career, COVID-19 and how he hopes he’ll be remembered.
Fauci’s Career at NIH
Did you ever imagine the course that your career would take?
“My plans were pretty simple. I came on to the [National Institutes of Health] campus. I was 27 years old. I just finished a few years of medical residency, which I did immediately out after medical school, and I came down here for a three-year fellowship in infectious diseases,” Fauci said.
“The unexpected was that I fell in love with the concept of research,” he said. “I found that when you do research and you make a discovery, you can influence in a positive way many, many patients in a field if you develop a therapy or understand the pathogenesis of a disease. And I really got taken up by that.”
Instead of going back to New York and treating patients in a hospital, Fauci has stayed at NIH since 1972 and never looked back.
He’s worked under seven U.S. presidents and helped navigate the country through several infectious disease crises, including AIDS, Ebola and SARS.
But it was COVID-19 that thrust Fauci into the international spotlight.
“I became the polarized enemy of some and the hero to others, and both of those are distortions of what reality is,” Fauci said.
“I’m not a hero. I’m a physician scientist who’s doing my job, and I became the devil to the people who were saying I was taking away the liberties of people by asking them to be vaccinated. So I happened to be caught in a very polarized time in our history, and that’s just the way it is,” he said.
“So I decided the only way to get through this is to focus like a laser on what my job was and what my responsibility is in. My responsibility, as a physician and as a scientist, is to do whatever I can with the resources we have to preserve the health and the safety of the American public.”
The Pandemic’s Darkest Days
There have been a lot of dark, difficult days during the pandemic. What’s your memory of the worst?
“When we saw what was happening in northern Italy in the very early part …. We kind of knew in an ominous way that it was going to happen here. And then when New York exploded, then I knew we were in for some really, really tough times,” he said. “That was the most painful realization of how bad things were going to get.”
A lot of us were watching your face during the news conferences. Was there one day that was more difficult for you than others?
“I did not take any pleasure in having to get up publicly in front of a television camera … and have to contradict the president of the United States. So it was very painful for me to get up there and say, ‘No, this is incorrect. This does not work. This is only anecdotal. You know, I’m sorry, sir, but this is not true,'” Fauci said of the news conferences with former President Donald Trump.
“You know, some of the people in the far right thought that I was doing that for political reasons to try and hurt the president. The last thing in the world that I would ever want to do is to hurt a president of the United States. But I had to tell the truth. That was the most difficult time for me.”
Fauci’s Decision to Retire
Why are you stepping down now? Why are you retiring? You’ve come this far.
“Some might say, ‘Why? What took you so long?'” Fauci said with a laugh. “I wanted to do something outside of the confines of the government, which would give me a different perspective, a different viewpoint on things in the same field of medicine, science and public health. But with a little bit of a different twist.”
“I wanted to leave while I was still at the top of my game and I could still walk away from what I was doing,” he said. “I mean, I’m 81 years old, but I feel like I’m 50 years old, so I still think I can do some of those things that I want to do — such as inspire younger people, scientists and would-be scientists to get involved in public service or public health, to serve as kind of an inspiration for them.”
What do you think that that last day is going to be like at NIH?
“That’s going to be tough. I don’t know what my reaction is going to be. I’m sure they’ll be emotional to it because I do remember very clearly driving onto the campus in June of 1968 and driving onto that campus literally every day, every weekend, most Sundays for 54 years,” he said. “It’s been the idea of walking away from it and not coming back or not being allowed on campus. When they — when you hand in your ID.”
How do you want to be remembered?
“What I would hope people would, would remember is that I took my responsibility very seriously, and I gave it everything I had, and I didn’t leave anything on the field. I just gave it all,” Fauci said. “Everything, every bit of energy I had and every bit of passion and … purpose. And I hope that people realize that that’s what I did. I gave it my best.”