Perhaps the world’s best-know infectious diseases expert is a lightning rod in a politicised debate over the origins of COVID-19.
It was almost 6.45pm on Saturday, February 1, 2020, when Dr Anthony Fauci fired off the email that would pitch him into possibly the biggest controversy of his time as one of America’s most prominent public scientists.
“Thanks Kristian. Talk soon on the call,” he wrote.
Although the response was innocuous, the context was explosive. Kristian Andersen, a professor of immunology at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, had been explaining to Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic showed signs of having been manipulated in a lab.
Andersen’s message, which was released this week as part of a 3000-page trove of Fauci’s emails dating back to the start of the pandemic, has helped bolster the theory that the disease began after a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Andersen later disavowed that theory.
The email exchange has intensified claims that Fauci publicly played down the possibility of a lab leak even while engaging in a conversation with other scientists about its potential merits.
Now the man nicknamed “America’s doctor” is facing calls to resign and a barrage of criticism from the right over his insistence that the pandemic probably has its roots in wild animals, rather than a Chinese lab.
“There are a lot of questions that must be answered by Dr Fauci,” said Donald Trump, the former president whom Fauci served as an adviser, following the release of the emails. Trump’s supporters, many of whom accuse Fauci of having exaggerated the severity of the pandemic, have gone further.
Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri, on Friday (Saturday AEST) urged Fauci to resign.
Fauci himself admits to being worried. Not about the blowback, however, but about what it says about America. “It worries me about what it says about this country,” he said.
“The emails show someone who is always assessing the data as they evolve. But people are selectively pulling emails out to distort what the reality is.”
The 80-year-old Fauci is one of America’s best-known and most well-respected doctors.
Having advised every president since Ronald Reagan, he achieved renown in the scientific world for his work on HIV in the 1980s when he was one of the first public medics to sound the alarm about a strange new disease identified among gay men. He won the respect of gay activists after helping to change the way medical trials were run so that more people could get access to potentially life-saving treatments.
I am not the enemy, I am just trying to get the truth out.
— Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
“Tony revolutionised how clinical trials are done for HIV,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a longtime friend of Fauci. “He is a great medic, but he is also a natural leader, and knows how to get things done.”
Fauci played a prominent role in the American responses to SARS, MERS and the Ebola outbreak of 2014-16, when the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention came under fire over its response.
“There was a time when CDC was being attacked unfairly,” said Tom Frieden, who was CDC director at the time. “Many people in that situation would have stood by or even quietly piled on, but Tony did exactly the opposite. He stood up for us internally and he stood up for us, publicly. He is a mensch.”
Fauci has been one of the most prominent faces of the US COVID-19 response. He has become famous for frequent television appearances in which he discusses in plain terms and in his broad New York accent the seriousness of the pandemic.
His willingness to contradict claims made by Trump, such as the assertion that COVID-19 was akin to the flu, earned him an army of fans.
High approval rating
Garden signs in Washington, DC and elsewhere declare: “Thank you, Dr Fauci.” His approval rating as of February was 60 per cent – just above that of Joe Biden, the president for whom he now works as chief medical adviser.
Others, however, believe he was undermining Trump for political reasons. Paul Mango, who was deputy chief of staff at the health department in the Trump administration, said: “Tony Fauci is a good man and a great scientist, but unfortunately he has made a political personality out of himself, and that has caused him to lose credibility.”
Fauci denies this: “I had to sometimes contradict what [Trump] said because what he said was not correct. For that, it seems that there are radical people around who believe I am the enemy. I am not the enemy, I am just trying to get the truth out.”
It is his reputation as a truth-teller that is now under threat.
He has been accused of helping to fund risky research at the Wuhan lab through a $US600,000 ($775,093) grant given by the US National Institutes of Health for work on bat coronaviruses. And his critics say his insistence that the origins of the disease probably lie in wild animals is less of a reflection of the evidence than it is of his desire to protect his institution.
Fauci says he continues to believe the “overwhelming likelihood” is that the SARS-COV-2 virus transferred into humans from animals.
But he also admits that some of the work undertaken at the Wuhan lab using NIH money could have violated safety standards – even if he says responsibility for that lies with EcoHealth Alliance, the non-governmental group that performed the work.
“We will have to go back and look at that,” he said of accusations that some of the coronavirus work was undertaken at biosafety level two, roughly equivalent to that in a dentist’s office. “But that is something that should have been monitored by EcoHealth Alliance.”
EcoHealth Alliance said: “As with all research organisations, EcoHealth Alliance must follow the local laws of the countries in which we work.”
Fauci continues to answer emails late into the night, from fellow professionals, journalists and members of the public. “I am getting four hours of sleep right now,” he said.