There was a time when Anthony Fauci thought he would retire when the Covid-19 pandemic was over. He told himself he’d spend a year as President Biden’s top medical adviser and that Covid-19 would be settled by then.
That, he admits now, may never happen. But this December, he announced this week, will have to be good enough.
The longtime National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director will step down after decades of shaping HIV/AIDS research and the federal response to disease outbreaks from Ebola to Zika and, in recent years that have catapulted him to fame, the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think that we’re in a good place now,” Fauci said in an interview. “I believe, even though we still are dealing with Covid, that if we succeed in getting more people vaccinated, and enough people get infected, that there’ll be enough background immunity that we’ll be able to live with a low, low level of infection.”
It’s an admission that few in the Biden administration have been willing to make. The president came into office pledging to end the pandemic but was soon stymied by stagnating vaccination rates and the swift appearance of new variants.
“We’re not going to eliminate it,” Fauci said in the plainspoken Brooklyn accent that has advised seven presidents through varied infectious disease outbreaks. “We have a very unusual situation of a virus that continually varies and you get new variants every several months.”
The recent dominance of the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 brought an upswing in breakthrough cases and hospitalizations, along with a scramble for updated, variant-targeting vaccines that drugmakers estimate could be ready this fall. The subvariants were federal officials’ latest reminder, after the Delta and Omicron waves, of the speed with which the coronavirus can evolve and seemingly outpace public health efforts.
The BA.4 and BA.5 wave seems to be crashing into a lull, but there are still five times as many coronavirus hospitalizations right now as there were at the end of April, said Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.
“I don’t believe in living with Covid when you have so much virus still circulating,” Topol said. “I do hope we’ll get to a point where it will be at the so-called containment state. We were almost there a couple of times on the way, but we’re not close to it at this point.”
Fauci’s timing could also lessen Republicans’ intense interest in calling him to testify in would-be investigations into the origins of the coronavirus, which they are hoping to launch if they take control of one or both chambers of Congress after the fall midterms.
Fauci, who became NIAID director during the burgeoning HIV epidemic and railed against then-President Ronald Reagan’s delayed response to the virus, has long been a lightning rod for national sentiment towards the Covid-19 pandemic and the federal response. Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill to remove his salary and have run midterm campaign ads pledging to investigate him; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last summer sold anti-Fauci merchandise blasting the masking recommendations, even as state cases soared.
“I’m not a polarizing figure because I’m a polarizing person,” he said. “I’m a polarizing figure because the divisiveness, politically in this country, has made me a polarizing figure.”
Exit or no, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) this week swiftly pledged to probe Fauci’s research whether or not he’s still in his current role. “Fauci’s resignation will not prevent a full-throated investigation into the origins of the pandemic,” he tweeted. Paul could be in line to helm the Senate HELP Committee if Republicans take the Senate this fall.
But Fauci insists that the midterm elections, and the prospect of Republicans controlling either the House or the Senate, were not a part of his calculus.
“My timing had absolutely nothing to do with the election coming up, zero,” he said. “Well over a year ago, when I was thinking about stepping down and moving on to the next phase — at the end of the Trump administration — President Biden, as one of the very first things he did after he was elected … he asked me to be his chief medical adviser.”
It was Biden offering him that role that kept him around, Fauci argued.
Fauci said that his chief objective after he steps down is addressing the splintering national sentiment towards vaccination and the federal response.
“Science has to stay strong and not get intimidated by the anti-science trend that we’re seeing,” he said. “The underlying theme that I would say is: Please don’t accept the normalization of untruths.”
That message, and his swift notoriety as a federal official who was both the face of the Covid-19 response and a contrarian in President Donald Trump’s administration, made Fauci a household name and a target in a larger conversation he worries will resonate past his tenure.
“The basis of science is evidence, and data leading to the truth,” Fauci said. “When you have a society that’s leaning towards a disrespect to science, a distortion of the truth, and then just out-and-out lying, that’s really not only a threat to my field, which is the scientific enterprise, I think it’s a threat to our democracy.”
With Fauci’s departure also come seismic questions about who will lead the infectious disease agency amid Covid-19, the monkeypox outbreak, and a vacuum of leadership in the National Institutes of Health, where former director Francis Collins’ role remains unfilled.
“He’s got big shoes,” Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at University of Pennsylvania and a Biden transition adviser, said of Fauci. “Someone who really understands the science, understands how to translate it for the public, understands how to communicate it to policymakers.”
There is no clear successor to navigate the agency through that political rift. Fauci said, simply, “I’m sure they will find someone who is up for the job.”
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