Fauci on media access, Trump contracting COVID and more

FAN Editor

This weekend, Americans face another surge in the COVID-19 pandemic. Infections have passed the 8 million mark and are rising rapidly. There are more than 218,000 dead. During the course of the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci has been the physician most Americans have relied upon for their information. But now, instead of worrying soley about developing vaccines or therapeutics, Dr. Fauci finds himself unhappily caught up in presidential politics, under protection from death threats, and forced to defend science itself.

With 16 days until the election, we began our conversation with a question many have been asking.

Dr. Jon LaPook: Are you planning to vote in person?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: I’m gonna try to vote in person. I like the– the atmosphere of going and voting.

Dr. Jon LaPook: I think a lotta of people want to vote in person, but they are afraid. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci: If someone asked me, “I’m 75 years old, I have hypertension and I’m a little bit concerned,” alleviate your anxiety, do an absentee ballot, no problem. 

Dr. Jon LaPook: But they could vote in person if they were careful. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Right. Yes. 

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  Dr. Anthony Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci has been a voice of logic and stability since the pandemic began. And right now, he’s worried we’re heading in the wrong direction. Worldwide the number of new cases is surging at an alarming rate, as seen in this map by Johns Hopkins University. This week, Russia reported a record number of infections, and cases are spiking in the UK, France, and Italy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: When you have a million deaths and over 30 million infections globally, you can not say that we’re on the road to essentially getting out of this. So quite frankly, I don’t know where we are. It’s impossible to say.

What Dr. Fauci knows for sure is, here in the United States, infections are beginning to rise as the weather gets colder and people congregate indoors. Over the last two weeks, new cases have gone up in at least 38 states. 

Dr. Jon LaPook: How bad would things have to get for you to advocate a national lockdown?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: They’d have to get really, really bad. First of all, the country is fatigued with restrictions. So we wanna use public health measures not to get in the way of opening the economy, but to being a safe gateway to opening the economy. So instead of having an opposition, open up the economy, get jobs back, or shut down. No. Put “shut down” away and say, “We’re gonna use public health measures to help us safely get to where we wanna go.” 

Those measures were not in place last month in the rose garden when President Trump announced the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

Dr. Jon LaPook: Were you surprised that President Trump got sick?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Absolutely not. I was worried that he was going to get sick when I saw him in a completely precarious situation of crowded, no separation between people, and almost nobody wearing a mask. When I saw that on TV, I said, “Oh my goodness. Nothing good can come outta that, that’s gotta be a problem.” And then sure enough, it turned out to be a superspreader event. 

After three days in the hospital with COVID-19, President Trump returned to the White House and soon started holding political rallies.

Trump at rally: I’m in such great shape. 

Earlier this month, the Trump campaign released a television ad. It features what appears to be a glowing remark from Dr. Fauci on President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci in campaign ad: I can’t imagine that anybody could be doing more. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Stunning. 

Fauci says his words were taken out of context. But this week the ad continued to run in key battleground states. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci: I do not and nor will I ever, publicly endorse any political candidate. And here I am, they’re sticking me right in the middle of a campaign ad. Which I thought was outrageous. I was referring to something entirely different. I was referring to the grueling work of the task force that, “God, we were knocking ourselves out seven days a week. I don’t think we could have possibly have done any more than that.”

Dr. Jon LaPook: Did the steam start to come out of your ears?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: No, it did, quite frankly. I got really ticked off. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci
Fauci wears a face covering as he listens during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on June 30, 2020 Al Drago / Getty Images

Dr. Fauci has become the most visible doctor in America, yet he says his ability to communicate with the public is not always under his control.

Dr. Jon LaPook: During this pandemic, has the White House been controlling when you can speak with the media?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: You know, I think you’d have to be honest and say yes. I certainly have not been allowed to go on many, many, many shows that have asked for me. 

Dr. Jon LaPook: One of the most trusted voices in America, and yet, you’re not there, you’re not allowed to talk with us. So, can you understand the frustration that maybe there’s been a restriction on the flow of information and on the transparency–

Dr. Anthony Fauci: You know, I think there has been a restriction, Jon, but– but it doesn’t, it– it– it isn’t consistent.  

Another point of contention between Dr. Fauci and the White House has to do with masks.

President Trump at debate: Dr. Fauci said the opposite.

Former Vice President Biden at debate: He did not say the opposite.

President Trump at debate: He said very strongly: Masks are not good. Then he changed his mind. He said masks are good. I’m OK with masks.

At the beginning of the outbreak, Dr. Fauci recommended against routinely wearing masks, partly because he was concerned there would be a shortage of surgical masks for healthcare workers.

But a month later, Fauci reversed course after, he says, it turned out people without symptoms were a significant source of spread. And masks, even homemade ones, could help stop transmission. 

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Fauci’s cloth covering.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: So let’s see if we could put this to rest once and for all. It became clear that cloth coverings, things like this here, and not necessarily a surgical mask or an N95, cloth coverings, work. So now there’s no longer a shortage of masks. Number two, meta-analysis studies show that, contrary to what we thought, masks really do work in preventing infection.

Dr. Jon LaPook: No doubt.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: So, no doubt.

Dr. Jon LaPook: So when you find out you were wrong, you don’t double down?   

Dr. Anthony Fauci: No. When you find out you’re wrong, it’s a manifestation of your honesty to say, “Hey, I was wrong. I did subsequent experiments and now it’s this way.”

The benefit of masks has been supported by evidence that, under certain conditions, the virus can travel more than the six feet suggested by social distancing guidelines.

Tiny, aerosolized droplets can float, like cigarette smoke, across a room. 

Over time, without good ventilation, they can build up and pose a risk of infection. Research shows a mask can reduce that risk.

Dr. Fauci says he’s optimistic about the early use of experimental therapies like remdesivir and the monoclonal antibodies given to President Trump. 

Dr. Jon LaPook: Do you find it at all ironic that the president, who has not always consistently followed the advice of public health officials and scientists, seems to have been made better by science?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Well, I don’t think it’s ironic. I think it’s fortunate that the president of the United States benefited from science. You know, I think deep down, he believes in science. If he didn’t, he would not have entrusted his health to the very competent physicians at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Dr. Jon LaPook: But at the same time he hasn’t worn masks consistently–

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Yeah, but that–

Dr. Jon LaPook: He’s pushed back against things you’ve said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: See I– I think that’s less an anti-science than it’s more a statement.

Dr. Jon LaPook: What kind of a statement?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: You know, a statement of strength, like, we’re strong, we don’t need– we don’t need a mask, that kind of thing.

Dr. Jon LaPook: Is that–

Dr. Anthony Fauci: You know, he sometimes equates wearing a mask with weakness.

Dr. Jon LaPook: Does that make sense to you? 

Dr. Anthony Fauci: No it doesn’t. Of course not. 

Dr. Jon LaPook: Do you have a feeling that there is sometimes an all-out war against science?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Oh yeah. I mean, particularly over the last few years. There’s an anti-authority feeling in the world. And science has an air of authority to it. So people who want to push back on authority tend to, as a sidebar, push back on science. 

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Fauci and his wife, Dr. Christine Grady

Dr. Fauci is married to Dr. Christine Grady, a bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health. We first met her back in 2016 during a rare, relaxed evening of homemade rigatoni with Italian sausage.

She prefers to stay out of the spotlight, but agreed to sit down with us.

Dr. Jon LaPook: This pandemic has been rough on families all across America. What about yours?

Dr. Christine Grady: Yeah, it’s been rough on ours in– in a way that I think is similar to many other families. We haven’t been able to see our children very often. I can’t see my mom very often.

Dr. Jon LaPook: How old’s your mom?

Dr. Christine Grady: She’s 96.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: And she got COVID.

Dr. Christine Grady: And she got COVID.

Dr. Jon LaPook: Really?

Dr. Christine Grady: And she’s in an assisted living facility. And– and so they understandably have very restricted visiting. And so all of those kinds of things are really have been hard for us just like they have been for many, many families.

Dr. Jon LaPook: You get to see a Tony Fauci that the rest of us don’t see. What frustrates him? 

Dr. Christine Grady: The fact that, you know, the same message has to sort of be reiterated over and over again because either people don’t hear it, or they don’t believe it, or they don’t adopt it. 

Once an avid runner, at 79, Dr. Fauci now power walks, flanked by federal agents. 

Dr. Jon LaPook: What’s that all about?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: That’s sad. The very fact that a public health message to save lives triggers such venom and animosity to me that it results in real and credible threats to my life and my safety. But it bothers me less than the hassling of my wife and my children.

Dr. Jon LaPook: They’ve been threatened?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Yes. I mean, like, give me a break. 

Dr. Jon LaPook: Have there been death threats against…

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Yes.

Dr. Jon LaPook: …you and your family?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Yes.

Dr. Jon LaPook: All of you?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: No, just me.

Dr. Christine Grady: Mostly him.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Mostly me. But hassling.

Dr. Christine Grady: Harassment against all of us.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Against the rest of the family. 

As the director of infectious disease research for the government, Dr. Fauci told us not one pathogen he’s studied, from HIV to H1N1 to Ebola, has been as puzzling as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. He says we need to figure out how common it is for people who’ve had the virus to be re-infected, and study the long term effects of the disease.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: If you talk to a significant number of people, they will tell you that, for anywhere from weeks to months and possibly longer, that they have symptoms that are characterized by fatigue and a thing that they refer to as brain fog, which really means the difficulty concentrating. The other thing that we’re seeing that’s a bit disturbing is that the degree of cardiovascular abnormalities by scans and by other diagnostics tests. It may be insignificant, but I don’t know that now. 

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Fauci in 2016

In 2016, during an outbreak of the Zika virus, Dr. Fauci showed us around the vaccine research center he helped create, where for 20 years he has led a team of scientists developing vaccines for emerging viruses. 

A full four years before COVID-19 caused worldwide devastation, Dr. Fauci told us his greatest fear.

Dr. Anthony Fauci in 2016: An influenza-like respiratory-borne virus that’s easily transmittable to which the population of the world has very little if any immunity against and that has a high degree of morbidity and mortality. Something similar to the very tragic pandemic flu of 1918. 

Not only did Dr. Fauci foresee this kind of pandemic, scientists at the NIH have spent years preparing for it. 

In January, before a single case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the U.S., Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus. Based on their prior work on other coronaviruses, NIH researchers edited that code so it could be used to make a vaccine. They sent the modifications to the biotech company Moderna, which was able to manufacture the vaccine and start a phase 1 clinical trial within two months, a process that used to take years. 

That vaccine and three others in the U.S. are now in phase-three clinical trials to see if they are safe and effective. 

Dr. Jon LaPook: If the FDA says, “It’s okay to take the vaccine,” are you gonna take it?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: I’m gonna look at the data upon which the FDA makes that decision. I trust the permanent professionals in the FDA. The director, the commissioner of the FDA, has been very public that he will not let politics interfere. We have an advisory committee to the FDA who are made up of independent people who I trust. Put all those things together, if the final outcome is that the FDA approves it, I will take it.

Produced by Denise Schrier Cetta. Associate producer, Katie Brennan.  Broadcast associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Warren Lustig.

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