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White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has been in government for nearly 40 years, but he became a household name when the coronavirus pandemic slammed the U.S. and the world in early 2020.
Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, Fauci has unquestionably become a political lightning rod in the COVID era; a selfless, brilliant medical mind to supporters and the face of a nightmare bureaucracy that crushed families during the pandemic to his detractors. The story of his unusual place in public life is a media one, and as he announced he was leaving government work at the end of the year, his place in the spotlight received renewed focus.
Fox News contributor Dr. Marc Siegel, who has interviewed Fauci several times and has known him for years, says the caricatures of him in the press don't tell the whole story.
Who is Fauci? Is he a life-saving physician who's dedicated his life to public service and scientific discovery? Is he the arrogant “little elf” derided by Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, R., who should be hurled across the Potomac? Is he “science” personified, as he once coined himself? Does he deserve scorn for recommending strict coronavirus measures throughout the pandemic, sounding dismissive of the harmful effects of prolonged school closures, and appearing cagy on questions about the origins of the pandemic and mask-wearing? Should he be remembered most for his work in championing PEPFAR, the global AIDS-fighting program developed under the George W. Bush administration credited with saving millions?
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He doesn't fit in any neat box, says Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at New York University's Langone Medical Center, calling him personable and well-regarded in the medical community. But Siegel said it was a problem that Fauci, an immunologist, became the effective face of the public health COVID-19 response in the Trump administration even though he was with the National Institutes of Health – a research agency – instead of Dr. Robert Redfield at the Centers for Disease Control, or Dr. Deborah Birx.
Fauci effectively got outside his lane when he ventured beyond his areas of expertise of vaccinology and immunology, Siegel argued. While the COVID vaccines have been derided for not preventing transmission of the virus, they have been effective in diminishing severe outcomes and death, and Fauci has been a champion of them from the start. His hedging on mitigation measures like closing schools, however, still earns him disdain from many parents to this day.
“I don't understand the degree to which Fauci and others endorsed shutdowns without considering the public health consequences, which have been huge,” Siegel said. “We're only in the middle of the pack in terms of the shutdown philosophy… But I think that there wasn't enough overall concern for consequences, and that includes Fauci. But remember, Fauci's lane is vaccinology and immunology. It's not the public health impact of these tools. So that's what I mean about him being outside his lane on this.”
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The fawning liberal media treatment he received could be what most damaged him in the eyes of the Republican base that so distrusts the press. MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace memorably called herself a “Fauci groupie.” CNN hosts leaped to his defense when he was in a pitched battle with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., over the questions of NIAID financial backing of “gain of function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the suspected origin site of the virus to Redfield and many other experts. CNN's Wolf Blitzer declared “we are grateful” to him, and media anchors from Norah O'Donnell to Stephanie Ruhle to Rachel Maddow have thanked him personally during interviews.
Upon the news he was leaving government service, another MSNBC program ran a segment with the chyron, “In Fauci We Trust.” It's worth noting that American currency is branded with the phrase “In God We Trust.”
Yet Siegel said Fauci has to be thought of in the context of his lengthy medical career and not based on where he makes most of his media appearances.
“I actually think that Tony is more humble than he's coming across right now,” Siegel said. “Tony has improved over the course of the pandemic in terms of his messaging, so he probably enjoys that. And I don't think it's because of outcome… He may even be naive that the left picking him up as their choirboy was [a problem].”
“He doesn't like being attacked by the right. So he goes where he's treated with more respect,” he said, again expressing respect for his career, adding, “Mocking him and calling him an elf really doesn't fit.”
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Another area where Fauci has courted criticism is in the origins of the pandemic itself. He has long called the natural origin the most likely while saying he was open to possibilities like it leaking accidentally from the Wuhan lab, a theory espoused by Redfield and others. The EcoHealth Alliance, backed with grants from the NIH, funded coronavirus research in Wuhan, and Fauci in 2020 was eagerly cited by press outlets with his belief the virus occurred naturally, as it opposed then-President Trump's views at the time.
CNN gleefully reported at one point, “Anthony Fauci just crushed Donald Trump's theory on the origins of the coronavirus.
The lab theory has received more widespread acceptance since then, and the Fauci connection through the NIH has some Republicans calling for his prosecution. Siegel thinks that goes too far.
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“I don't think he's totally open-minded about this, even though he says he is. But I don't think that makes him a criminal,” Siegel said.
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