opn 200403 Anthony Fauci-1585901770952
Dr. Anthony Fauci at a White House news breifing on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Fauci, America’s leading expert on infectious diseases, has become a regular at President Donald Trump’s coronavirus briefings Image Credit: NYT

If you’re old enough to remember the 1988 US presidential campaign, Republican candidate George Bush senior squared off against Michael Dukakis for the Democrats. It was back in the day when there was no social media and the Soviet Union still existed.

Back then everyone tuned into televised candidates debates — very often a deciding factor in how voters would cast their ballots — and in the final debate of a series, the two candidates were asked to identify Americans would could inspire young people.

Fauci has been praised as the most famous doctor in America, and the man whose compassion and calm helped the US make otherwise impossible strides in confronting a public health crisis


“I think of Dr Fauci,” candidate Bush answered. “You’ve probably never heard of him. He’s a very fine researcher, top doctor at the National Institutes of Health, working hard doing something about research on this disease of Aids.”

Today, everyone has likely heard of Dr Anthony Fauci or, if not familiar with his name, have at least seen him stand alongside President Donald Trump during his daily rambling updates on the advance of the coronavirus across the US.

More than three decades on, Dr Fauci is still in that top job — the 79-year-old has never considered retiring.

Brash manner

Like President Trump, Dr Fauci is a proud New Yorker, the grandson of Italian immigrants whose first introduction to medicine was delivering prescription drugs from his father’s pharmacy. And like President Trump, Dr Fauci shares a sometimes brash manner in delivering the scientific and medical perspective in fighting COVID-19.

Born on Christmas Eve in 1940, he’s a workaholic, turning in 20-hour days during this current emergency while also finding the time to take a job during his lunchbreak.

Over his five decades as a medical researcher, Dr Fauci has seen his effigy burnt, heard the cries of protesters calling him a “murderer”, and had smoke bombs thrown outside his office window.

But he has also been praised as the most famous doctor in America, and the man whose compassion and calm helped the US make otherwise impossible strides in confronting a public health crisis.

Latest on COVID-19

As head of immunology at the National Institutes of Health during the 1980s HIV/Aids epidemic, Dr Fauci has seen conflict before. Now, as President Trump has proclaimed that the US stands on a “war footing” to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, he has again become the man at the frontline.

In 1966, he graduated first in his class at Cornell medical school, whose library he had helped build as an undergraduate working construction to earn money over the summers.

Following a medical residency, he joined the NIH in 1968 as part of the US war effort, instead of being drafted to fight in Vietnam.

A turning point in his career came decades later, he said, when a report landed on his desk on June 5, 1981, describing the death of an otherwise healthy patient from a strange pneumonia normally seen in people with cancer. Another report soon followed describing 26 deaths, all gay men.

“I remember reading it very clearly,” he later said. “It was the first time in my medical career I actually got goose pimples. I no longer dismissed it as a curiosity. There was something very wrong here. This was really a new microbe of some sort, acting like a sexually transmitted disease.”

As a clinician, Dr Fauci’s work on the regulation of the human immune system was credited with helping to reveal how the HIV destroys the body’s defences. He led clinical trials for zidovudine, the first antiretroviral drug to treat Aids. But as the epidemic swept through the US in the 1980s, however, he became the target of activists angry at the Reagan administration’s muted response and lack of access to novel drugs.

His compassion for Aids sufferers was lauded, however, and he was credited with convincing regulators to loosen restrictions on clinical trials for patients to test new drugs.

Presidential Medal of Freedom

The New York Times called him “the government’s leading Aids celebrity” — but noted that he still actually did all his research work himself, not like “a lot of people you see quoted on TV [who have] assistants don white coats and do all that tedious work”. He was awarded the highest US civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2008.

In 1984, he was appointed director of the NIH’s Allergy and Infectious Diseases division, a title he still holds.

The research division he leads has overseen studies on everything from Aids to Ebola to asthma.

He has advised six presidents, helping to found George W Bush’s Aids initiative in Africa and now, serving as explainer-in-chief to the public amid the current Covid-19 outbreak.

For Americans, he has become a trusted presence behind the podium at White House COVID-19 briefings, where he has dispensed facts about the US response, explaining the science and sometimes correcting President Trump’s pronouncements.

A vaccine will take at least a year and a half, he has said, dampening the president’s optimistic claim one would be ready very soon.

The current US leader, who is known to dislike being challenged, has even begrudgingly given Dr Fauci a high compliment. The researcher, the president said, is “a major television star”.

However, observers say his contradictions of the president’s claims has laid bare the frictions of working with the White House.

In a widely shared interview, Dr Fauci told Science magazine last month that when it comes to giving the public correct information, “I’m trying my best. I cannot do the impossible”.

“I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him [President Trump] down. OK, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time.”

His willingness to say it as it is means, however, that he has become the subject of right-wing trolls and conspiracy theorists — something the father of three daughters doesn’t need right now in setting American straight on the dangers of this pandemic.

— With inputs from agencies, the BBC

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe