When Anthony Fauci returned my call the other day, he was standing outside the West Wing, on his way to a meeting of the coronavirus task force. He didn’t have much time to talk; he had 20 more phone calls to make, he told me. Getting a chair at the task-force meetings isn’t guaranteed. Even in the White House Situation Room, officials practice social distancing.
When Vice President Mike Pence arrives at the sessions, he checks to see whether people are squeezed too close together, putting one another at risk of infection. If they are, he “essentially kicks people out of the room, saying, ‘Hey, go to another room and tune in by teleconference,’” Fauci told me.
Many Americans seem to want Fauci to be in the room where decisions are being made. His candor has made him an instant icon. During White House press briefings, social-media users dissect his second-by-second facial expressions for clues as to what he’s thinking when President Donald Trump takes questions. Alarm spread among TV viewers when he missed a briefing the other day, giving rise to the hash tag #WheresFauci.
Whether he’s allowed to stay in the room, and for how long, is anyone’s guess. Trump doesn’t like to be upstaged. And speaking truths that clash with Trump’s message risks banishment and ridicule from the president. The 79-year-old Fauci, who is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has shown that he’s willing to do it anyway. As Trump touts an existing malaria drug as a potential treatment (“I’m probably more of a fan of that—maybe than anybody,” he said at a press briefing Friday), Fauci made plain that the drug’s effectiveness against the coronavirus is unproven.
“No. The answer is no,” Fauci, who was standing alongside Trump, said in response to a question about whether any evidence indicates that the drug might work. What evidence there is, he said, remains “anecdotal.”
Fauci has advised six presidents since he became the head of NIAID in 1984. But he’s never seen a disease quite like COVID-19, nor has he ever worked for a president quite like Trump. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Peter Nicholas: In your long career, have you ever seen a public-health crisis in the U.S. as serious as this one?
Anthony Fauci: No. What we have right now is something that’s very different and very acute and very threatening. And the reason people are getting anxiety about it—in some respects, appropriately so—is because it seems that no one is safe from this. It’s a diffuse respiratory illness that has a high degree of morbidity and mortality, particularly among certain vulnerable populations, like the elderly and those with underlying conditions. This is unprecedented. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never seen anything like this.
If you go back—and I’ve been doing this for about 36 years, starting with the early years of HIV/AIDS—each of the outbreaks has a different flavor to them. Some are scary, but the reality is not that bad. Like Ebola—everyone got frightened by Ebola, but there really was no chance in the United States that we would have a diffuse outbreak of Ebola, because of the way Ebola spreads.
Nicholas: Was the U.S. adequately prepared for the pandemic?
Fauci: If you have an overwhelming pandemic, there’s almost no degree of preparedness that can prevent all the suffering and death. There are relative degrees of preparedness. And in that regard, [the U.S. leads] in the level of preparedness. But, obviously, as you can see [with] what is playing out right now, when you have something with the force of a pandemic, it appears that you are not well prepared.
Take the clock back a decade or so. [You could have said] We have 12,700 ventilators in the strategic national stockpile. Why not put 100,000 in there? There would not have been any enthusiasm on anybody’s part to spend that much money to do that. Now, retrospectively, when you look back, you say, Oh my God, why didn’t we put 100,000 ventilators in there?
It’s a dynamic situation, and people understandably want to know: Do we have enough? We don’t know. As more people require care and equipment, the system is stressed. So we have to do the best we possibly can. Hopefully that will be enough.
Nicholas: Have you felt pressure from the Trump administration to deliver a particular message about the coronavirus?
Fauci: No, they’ve not [pressured me]. [Laughs.] I’m not sure why.
I made up my mind a long time ago, Peter—and this goes back to the first time I had to speak the truth to Ronald Reagan about the seriousness of HIV/AIDS, when people were not paying attention to it. I was, like, the lone wolf out there: This is going to be big. We’ve got to do something about it.
I’m doing the same thing now. And my attitude is: I’m going to keep doing that. I don’t think they’re going to try to silence me. I think that would be foolish on their part. And I don’t even think they want to. I think, in some respects, they welcome my voice out there telling the truth. I’m going to keep doing it. And no matter what happens to me, I’m going to keep doing it.
Nicholas: How does Trump compare with other presidents with whom you’ve worked?
Fauci: He has a very unique style. But the thing that encourages me is that every time I’ve asked him to do something—cut out China travel, or go to the mitigation guidelines—he’s always ultimately listened to what I’ve said. When I’ve said, I really think we should do this, he’s never said no and overruled my recommendation. No matter what his style is, when it comes to the core of what gets done, thankfully, he has listened to me.
Nicholas: Are you taking steps to protect yourself and avoid infection?
Fauci: As best I can, yes. There are risks that some people need to take, because when it comes to the public health and the safety of the American people, sometimes you really have got to take some risks for yourself. Not everybody can shelter in place. But I try to do my best. I wash my hands 100 times a day. I don’t ever shake hands with anybody. And when I’m talking to somebody, I try to stay six feet away from them. So I am doing that. When I am not here [at work]—I’m going about 20 hours a day—I try to do my best.