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Much-maligned Man of the Moment

Jun 30, 2021

The mild-mannered Dr. Anthony Fauci is a much-maligned man. As a man of science who has entered the media arena, he has to suffer fools, some less gladly than others, but he usually manages to keep an even temper and a smile on his face, befitting a wise man of 80. 

Fauci’s quiet but firm deportment as a man of science famously put him at odds with President Trump and continues to rile anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists who make wild claims of a Wuhan lab-engineered virus without scientific logic, documentation or evidence. Fauci has been ludicrously accused of helping China to create and weaponize the virus. 

China, for reasons of geography, biology and wildlife, especially the bat population on its southern border, is a well-documented site of zoonotic transmission of viral contagions, entirely of natural origin, most notably the 2003 SARS outbreak. Still it can take years to track down the cause and mechanism of a new virus and the zoonotic transmission of COVID-19 has not yet been traced. 

Science can be slow and methodical but it is neutral and illuminating. Politicians, on the other hand, can be impetuous and impatient, as personified by the Trump administration, its lapdog media and fervent domestic supporters. Beijing has understandably taken umbrage from the prejudicial and overtly politicized attacks from Pompeo’s state department and Fox News, but that doesn’t mean the lab should go uninspected. 

In an age of competing nationalisms abroad and divisive partisanship at home, Dr. Fauci possesses the rare quality of quietly speaking the truth even if it is not to his political advantage. Although it would be humiliating for China to open up its Wuhan lab to a U.S. governmental inspection team, given the way U.S. populists have trumped up the so-called “Wuhan virus” to score political points, it would be reasonable to open the labs to Dr. Fauci and an independent team of respected scientists. He has not engaged in anti-China invective. Instead he gives praise where due to the work of his Chinese colleagues and finds it reasonable that the U.S. should, through funding and scientific exchange, support the work of the Wuhan lab. 

A respectful but rigorous inspection of the lab by dedicated scientists could squelch lab leak fantasies and assuage the rise of paranoia that threatens to thrust the U.S. and China deep into a cold war. 

As I prepared to join a group Zoom conversation with Dr. Fauci on June 8, 2021, a search for his name on Twitter produced among its top ten tweets the following entries from sitting members of the U.S. Congress: 

Sen. Marsha Blackburn: Dr. Fauci put Mark Zuckerberg and the CCP before American jobs and lives. He needs to go, now. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene: Earlier this year, I introduced H.R. 2316, the Fire Fauci Act. Should Fauci be fired? Do you agree? 

Rep. Matt Gaetz: “Dr. Anthony Fauci and his friends do not want the American people to know the truth about the origins of COVID-19.” 

Not only has his name been defamed by congress members, but at a New York City vaccination clinic that Fauci visited with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, anti-vax protesters called for him to be fired. Death threats, a feature of his life since the pandemic put him in the spotlight, have necessitated increased security for his family. 

Jeneen Interlandi of the New York Times, who hosted the Nieman Foundation Q&A, said that Fauci was sounding more forthright and emotional than usual, perhaps a reflection of the personal attacks in the latest media frenzy. 

Asked if he ever thought of resigning due to the vitriol and pressure he has been put under after clashing with Trump and Trump supporters, he said no. He respects the Presidency but didn’t want to play political games. He spoke out not only because he had his own reputation to consider but for fear of a vacuum of truthful information at the top. 

I asked him about MIT Broad Institute Fellow Alina Chan’s contention that a scientist should give equal weight to all possibilities, even extremely unlikely possibilities such as a lab leak. He reiterated that one has to allow for the possibility that a lab leak took place, but that even if there were a lab leak, it would not indicate a manufactured virus or bio-weapon. There is simply no evidence to support that, and the virus does not have those characteristics. The accidental transmission of a natural virus that infected someone in the lab is theoretically possible, but unknowable unless there was an examination. He added later that examining the health records of lab workers could help clear that up. 

When questioned about the location of the Wuhan lab, Fauci said it makes sense to locate research centers near the source of viral outbreaks. He cited SARS and related viruses traced to bat populations in China as prime examples of that. U.S. financial support was limited to about $125,000 a year, but such sharing of data and resources is important and necessary to tackle global issues such as a pandemic. 

He also stressed that lockdowns, masks and social distancing were key mitigations in slowing spread, but now that vaccines are available and have proven effective, widespread vaccination is the only way forward. 

But anti-vaxxers, who can be a hostile gutter media and recalcitrant die-hard supporters of Trump stand in the way. Trump continues to rail against Fauci, while Fox News host Tucker Carlson calls him the “patron saint of Wuhan” and insinuates that he instituted “medical martial law” to dampen questioning about his funding of experiments that released the virus.

Fauci insists that the U.S. has enough vaccines for its population and that he can see no reason why it shouldn’t be able to get the whole population vaccinated. But danger remains if the virus is not stopped elsewhere, which is why a global problem needs a global solution. It’s not only the right ethical thing to do but in the interests of the U.S. that people in countries without access to the vaccine get protection, even if it costs “billions and billions” of dollars. 

The thing that keeps him up at night is not the pot shots of the gutter press or even the name-calling, calls to resign and threats against his person, but a long-held theoretical fear that has sadly come true. 

Ever since he started working on pandemic research around 30 years ago, he said his greatest fear was that one day there would be an animal-to-man jump of a highly contagious virus with high morbidity and mortality that would spread around the world. But while he is now confronting the reality of Covid-19, the materialization of his long-held fear, he continues to navigate the road back to normalcy with science, logic, and grace.

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