Women's Health

Anthony Fauci prepares for retirement after half a century in government

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WASHINGTON — The walls of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci’s home office are adorned with portraits of him, drawn and painted by some of his many fans. The most striking is that of the singer Joan Baez. The two, he said, “became really good friends over the years.”

Dr. Fauci seemed a little uncomfortable with people knowing the images. He said that earlier, when they were filmed, “the far right” had called him “selfish”. If anyone bothered to send him a portrait of themselves, he said, they would “feel like I’m disrespecting them” if they threw it away.

It was an eye-opening glimpse into the psyche of America’s most loved and hated doctor as he concludes more than half a century of government service at the National Institutes of Health. After Saturday, Dr. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser and for 38 years director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will no longer be a federal employee.

Dr Fauci, who turned 82 on Christmas Eve, said he may be retiring, but he is not leaving. He hopes to speak in public, join a university and treat patients if there is a medical center. He plans to write memoirs, he said, and he wants to encourage people to pursue careers in science, medicine and public service.

Republicans, who will take control of the House early next month, will ensure he does not slip out of public view. They promised to investigate his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and call him to Capitol Hill to testify. He says he has every intention of showing himself and has nothing to hide.

From the AIDS epidemic to Covid-19, Dr. Fauci has been the public face of American science for decades, advising seven presidents along the way. At the end of November, the New York Times spoke to him in his office in Washington about his career and his plans for the future. This interview has been edited and condensed.

You said you were retiring from public service but were preparing for a “next chapter”. So what’s the next chapter?

It’s a good question. Since I cannot negotiate any details of my post-government life for ethical reasons and conflicts of interest, I am doing something unusual for me, which is not knowing exactly what the details of the next step. But I decided I wanted to have a few years out of government to pursue things that fit my life stage.

Namely, I will be 82 years old in a month. And what do I have to offer? Is it more important for me to do yet another experiment or do yet another clinical trial, or would it be more important to use the benefit of my experience by writing, giving talks, being involved in advice questions – and above all, who What is really close to my heart is perhaps to inspire young people to enter medicine and science, or, for people who are already in medicine and science, to consider a career in the public service.

When you think of a memoir, how do you envision it? Is there a separate book on Covid?

What I would like to do is make it a real memoir, which is a life story of which Covid is a part. Because if you look at what Tony Fauci was and is, Tony Fauci is not defined by Covid. I would much rather tell the story of my whole being, from when I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn to where I am right now. But I do not know. I have never written a book before.

In addition to looking forward to you, I also want to look forward to the country. What do you think are the biggest health challenges we face?

Unfortunately, I have experienced, and the country and the world have experienced, a series of emerging and re-emerging infections, some of which have had a profound global impact and some of which have been curiosities and some of which have had a regional impact. I don’t think it’s going to stop.

Are there any other threats you can think of beyond infectious disease threats?

What really, really concerns me is the politicization of public health principles. How you can have under-vaccinated red states and well-vaccinated blue states and have far more frequent deaths among people in red states because they’re under-vaccinated – that’s tragic for the population.

You have worked for seven presidents. Do you have any favourites?

No, I wouldn’t discuss favorites. It wouldn’t be appropriate.

But Donald Trump certainly must have been the toughest president.

It was obviously difficult because I said — and I’ll tell you — that I have a lot of respect for the office of the President of the United States. And I had the opportunity to say things to presidents that sometimes they don’t want to hear, but they took what I said seriously and respected me for giving them the scoop.

I did not like or seek a position of having to publicly contradict a President of the United States. The far right seems to think I did this on purpose and enjoyed it. I do not have. I felt very, very pained to have to stand up in a public press conference and contradict what he says about hydroxychloroquine, contradict what he says about the virus which will magically disappear. But I had to do it for my personal and professional integrity and to take responsibility.

My primary responsibility is to the American public. I serve the public; I am not in the service of a political party. I am completely apolitical.

Are you registered as a freelancer?

Yes.

The House Republicans will have you testify. Are you ready for this?

I have no problem testifying before Congress. I have nothing to hide. I could easily explain and justify everything I did. So they do a lot of work on that, but I respect the concept of surveillance.

Are there any lessons you think we’ve learned from Covid that, going forward, we should act on?

I look at epidemic preparedness and response in two big buckets. One is the science bucket and the other is the public health bucket.

If you look at what the overriding great achievement of the pandemic has been, it’s the scientific response, the years of investment in basic and clinical research that has led to the absolutely unprecedented feat of going from recognition of a brand new virus in January of 2020 to go through massive clinical trials to get the vaccine proven safe and effective and into people’s arms within 11 months. It was a great success.

What has not been as effective is the public health response. We had outdated systems. Things weren’t online or computerized. People used fax machines. You can’t do that when you’re going to have a pandemic response.

So the lesson is to continue to support basic and clinical science, because we will need it, and to try to strengthen our national and global public health infrastructure.

Reading between the lines, one might say, “Tony Fauci did a great job, but the CDC didn’t do such a great job.”

No, it’s not me. I do not criticize them. But we did – the scientific community has done a great job on this. We were doing.

If you had, say, another 10 years in your job, what would you focus on? Could it be an AIDS vaccine? Are there any big unrealized goals?

It would certainly be an optimization of AIDS therapy, perhaps with a cure. I would like over the next 10 years to apply the new technologies that have proven themselves with Covid to obtain a vaccine against malaria and tuberculosis.

And you, don’t people know? You are such a public person.

They know next to nothing about my medical side and my sensitivity and empathy towards illness and suffering.

Will you continue to treat patients?

Well, it depends on the institution I am connecting with.

You are retiring from the public service. Your ties are severed with the NIH and you pack up your office there. How’s that for you?

It’s kind of a weird feeling, because I’m so busy. I was just on this Zoom with the White House about a press conference that I’m going to be at. I’m so busy I can’t think of quitting, and what’s kind of daunting is that I have to get all of this out of my office pretty quickly.

Do you plan to give your papers?

All my papers will go to the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

I’m sure there are TV networks that would like you to commentate or work with them. Is it in your future? Will we still see you on TV?

You’ll still see me on TV if they want me, but I won’t make TV a career aspiration.

I would like to know a little more about the politicization of science. How do you think we could come back from this deep hole that we seem to be in?

I don’t know what the mechanism is, but I hope people will realize that it hurts what we all care about. We love our country. We care about family and values. It may be naive. I do not think so. I am not a naive person. I’m an optimist, but I’m a cautious optimist. I just hope the best angels in people win.

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