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PolitiFact interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for the first time May 11 as part of United Facts of America: A Festival of Fact-Checking.
Managing editor Katie Sanders asked Fauci about the origins of the coronavirus, COVID-19 vaccines for children, and what he makes of the infodemic that plagued American dialogue about the virus and vaccines.
PolitiFact: Dr. Fauci, it's great to have you here. Originally, we were going to meet earlier today, but you had to take a trip to Capitol Hill where you were there for a few hours. It seemed like you had an interesting conversation.
Fauci: Yes, it's always interesting, particularly when you're dealing with a degree of divisiveness as you see in our country, but in general, I'm very much in favor of congressional hearings.
Today we had a Senate health hearing, and it's good to get things out in public and discuss. You know, sometimes it's a little contentious, but for the most part it's really a very positive situation. So I've done it many, many, many times over the years, and I've always found them to be very helpful for getting information out.
PolitiFact: All right, well, there's one moment in particular that's already making some headlines, and I wanted to run it by you for additional comment. And that was Sen. Rand Paul, who you've tangled with in the past, basically suggesting that you and the NIH funded risky research that eventually down the line connected to COVID-19. I don't want to dwell on this for too long, but I did want to give you that chance to react to his comments today.
Fauci: Yeah, I mean, that's actually preposterous. And I mean, to bring something that up is really not helpful. He was saying we funded a kind of research in China that could lead to dangerous research. That's not the case. So what he was saying was just absolutely not true. It's really unfortunate that he brought that up. It really does nothing but cloud the issue of what we're trying to do. So it was just unfortunate that he said that. It was said in an accusatory way that just made no sense and was not based in any fact that all.
PolitiFact: That has been the subject of a lot of our fact checking on the coronavirus for the past year. And like you said, there's a lot of cloudiness around the origins of COVID-19 still. So I wanted to ask, are you still confident that it developed naturally?
Fauci: No, actually, that's the point that I said. And I think the real unfortunate aspect of what Sen. Paul did is he was conflating research in a collaborative way with Chinese scientists, which was, you know, you'd almost have to say, if we did not do that we would almost be irresponsible because SARS-CoV-1 clearly originated in China, and we were fortunate to escape a major pandemic. So we really had to learn a lot more about the viruses that were there, about whether or not people were getting infected with bad viruses. So in a very minor collaboration as part of a subcontract of a grant, we had a collaboration with some Chinese scientists. And what he conflated is that therefore we were involved in creating the virus which is the most ridiculous majestic leap I've ever heard of. But no, I'm not convinced about that. I think that we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we find out to the best of our ability exactly what happened. Certainly the people who've investigated say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else. And we need to find that out. So, you know, that's the reason why I said I'm perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus.
PolitiFact: Let's jump to some good news for parents and kids this week. The FDA yesterday granted Pfizer and BioNTech's request for emergency use authorization to administer its vaccine to children (ages 12-15). Assuming all goes well with Pfizer's trial results for even younger children, the company may seek to extend that authorization for children two to 11 in September. So my first question about that is, if you don't mandate vaccines for children, and we know children are far less likely to get severely ill from COVID-19, what is the case for parents to get their children vaccinated?
Fauci: Well, I think there's a very good case for that. Well, first of all, even though, as people correctly point out, when a child gets infected, the likelihood of there being a serious outcome is considerably less than an adult, particularly an elderly person or a person with an underlying deficiency. But children have gotten seriously ill. Some of them have gotten serious consequences of infection. So you're not completely exempt.
Number two, if you want to really interrupt the cycle of transmission, the chain of transmission, getting as many people at any age possible protected from infection and protected from spreading the infection, that would include children. So I know if I had children, and I have adult children now, but if I had children of the age that we're talking about, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to get them vaccinated because there is a small chance they could get seriously ill that's fine, but we want to make sure that they don't then inadvertently spread the infection to someone who actually might have a serious outcome either because of their age or because of an underlying condition.
So I look at it twofold, one for the protection of the individual but also a bit about the societal responsibility to try and interrupt the chain of transmission and not allow yourself to be part of the chain of transmission.
PolitiFact: So really quickly, do you think kids should be required to get the vaccine for attending school?
Fauci: You know, I think that's gonna be debatable. I mean, I'm not gonna come down one way or the other. You know, we do have situations where it is mandatory if children are gonna go into public schools and even some private schools that they get the array of childhood vaccinations. So this would not be unprecedented to require children to be vaccinated to go to school. Again, I'm not sure what the right thing is gonna be. I'd be interested to see what the CDC epidemiologists say about that but it certainly would not be the first time that you mandate vaccines for children to go to school.
PolitiFact: Yeah, you're right. All right, I want to get to the heart of our conversation which is what to do about misinformation. Your scientific approach made you a target for backlash and conspiracy theory. Some of them were amplified by President Trump. We fact checked many of them. They said you were invested in the vaccine, that you want every American microchipped, that you were behind this whole thing. Those are just the lies that affected you personally. When did you know the level of misinformation in this pandemic fight was going to be very, very bad?
Fauci: Well, you know, it really started when I began to have to, out of necessity and the maintenance of my own integrity, I had to come out and disagree with some of the things that President Trump said. I mean, for example, my putting down this issue of hydroxychloroquine being the savior of COVID-19, that immediately somehow or other made me at odds, not only with the President but with some of the people around the President like Peter Navarro, who somehow became my enemy because I said that I didn't believe that hydroxychloroquine was any benefit, but then as it became more and more dicey in the sense of the tension in the White House between me having to essentially pull back when the President would say that this is gonna go away tomorrow, it's gonna just disappear and my having to the next day in front of the press say, no, I don't think that's the case. Then it became very clear that the attacks on me were getting more and more and more.
And then the conspiracy theories started to come in, which, you know, in some respects is laughable except that a lot of people believe it. You know, a lot of people believe that I'm putting chips in the vaccine and when every time you get vaccinated you get a chip that's gonna now control you or that I created the virus or that I'm making billions of dollars out of the vaccine. I mean, all things that are just absolutely preposterous, but they're out there and a fair number of people believe it, which is really disturbing.
PolitiFact: Right, could you have anticipated that?
Fauci: Oh, never. I mean, I would never, I mean, I have been doing this for a very long period of time. I've been the director of the institute for almost 40 years, 37 years. I've been through multiple outbreaks. I've served seven presidents of various denominations and persuasions, and I've never seen anything begin to approach any of the divisiveness that we're seeing but also the distortion of reality. I mean, being a fact-checker as your organization is, this must be a field day for you in the sense that there's so much distortion of reality and complete misinformation out there that, you know, if it wasn't so serious and have such a negative impact it would almost be funny, but it's not funny.
PolitiFact: Yeah, it's been a lot. As you said, our team has been so busy between the election and the pandemic. And often they went hand in hand. You know, we're battling a pandemic but also what we call an infodemic at the same time. And in the last couple of weeks you've chosen to respond to comments by Tucker Carlson and Joe Rogan, not obscure people, they have huge audiences, questioning the need for young people to get vaccinated. I've heard your fact checks on that, and we've done our own. But how do you decide to respond to false claims and risk amplifying them?
Fauci: Well, I certainly don't respond to every false claim. Otherwise that's all I would be doing, and I would just create a lot of back and forth that would be distracting to the things I do. But sometimes when people directly call me out and say that you are wrong about this, I have to correct them and say, no. I don't go looking around for false things that people say and try to correct everyone. Absolutely, in fact, I err on the other side of trying to avoid any confrontations because they're really nothing but distracting. But when someone makes a statement that is egregiously incorrect and would actually counter the things that I and my public health colleagues are trying to do, then you feel it's almost your obligation to publicly correct it. But I certainly don't feel like I have to be the corrector of all the falseness out there, only when it impacts something that I'm trying to do from a public health standpoint.
PolitiFact: And are you being proactive about those corrections, kind of wanting to get in there yourself? Or are you being tapped by the Biden White House or your team to go after it?
Fauci: No, I don't get any pressure to go after that. That's one of the things about the White House and the team. They really leave up to me and my colleagues the kinds of things we're out there talking about. I am really a person, those who know me, that I just don't like confrontation. I'm not a confrontative person at all, but sometimes you just can't keep silent on certain things.
PolitiFact: Understood. Was there any false claim that stood out from all of the others, from the cascade last year that stopped you and you were just like, wow, people are really believing this? This is not gonna be easy. It's gonna be really hard.
Fauci: Well, I think the one that got the most publicity, I think was the issue when people who had no medical experience at all were claiming that certain interventions work. Then I guess the prototype of that was the hydroxychloroquine, when you had people coming in with no experience or training in medicine were saying, well these studies clearly show that this is a drug that's absolutely saving lives. You know, well, the answer is it doesn't. But then when they claim that by not promoting that drug that you are causing people to die, I mean, that takes it to the next step. And that to me was really profoundly disturbing.
The other thing is what you were mentioning just a minute ago, I mean, this idea of this distracting almost slanderous claim that you were the one that created the virus. I mean, come on, let's get real here.
PolitiFact: You said people don't appreciate the evolution of knowledge that comes with being a scientist encountering a new virus for the first time. And the context I've heard you say that is when partisans are saying that you flip-flopped or lied about wearing masks back in March, 2020 before the CDC revised its guidance the next month. We care about the details at PolitiFact, and we were wondering, when you made your initial comments about wearing masks on "60 Minutes," were you purely worried about the PPE shortage or were you thinking that COVID would be like SARS, mainly transmitted by people who have obvious symptoms?
Fauci: Well, it was a combination of things. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify that. First of all, there were three issues that we're conflating on that.
One was very clearly that when we were having our meetings in the Situation Room we were told, there really is a shortage of PPE. And if you start asking people to wear masks people will go out, buy up all the masks and there would not be enough masks for the people who actually need them, namely the healthcare providers who were putting themselves on the line every day. So you didn't want people to all of a sudden rush out and get masks.
The other thing is that there wasn't a lot of data at all that showed that masks were effective outside of the hospital setting. We knew 'cause I, myself as a healthcare provider, would wear a mask under certain circumstances when I was taking care of different types of patients. But outside of the hospital setting, there was no evidence that in the system of the community that it would be effective.
And third, we were not aware of something that was really a game changer. And that is that the infections, anywhere from 50 to 60% are transmitted by someone who has no symptoms. Either someone who would get no symptoms ever or was presymptomatic. So for those three reasons when I was asked on "60 Minutes," "Should everybody wearing a mask?" I said, "No, there's really no reason to wear a mask." A, we don't know that they work, B, mostly in respiratory illnesses it's spread by people with symptoms. And third, we don't want to consume all the masks.
And then what evolved over a period of weeks to months is A, it became clear that there isn't a shortage of masks and that cloth masks that people wear were adequate. Number two, meta analysis studies started to show that it is true outside of the hospital setting, masks do work not only in preventing you from infecting someone but even for preventing you from getting infected. And then third, it became clear that the virus was clearly being transmitted by people who had no symptoms. And because of that, I changed and said, you know, we really should be wearing a mask.
PolitiFact: So it wasn't about any assumptions with Cov-1, SARS-CoV-1, I should say?
Fauci: No, no, no.
PolitiFact: Okay. So we have a question in the chat from Haley who said she wants to hear your thoughts on how misinformation and disinformation about HIV and AIDS, that epidemic, influenced how you're navigating this one. And we do have a lot of questions, if you could think about it kind of briefly.
Fauci: Yeah, well, first of all, there was a lot of misinformation that we had to counter with HIV. And I got trained to be able to counter misinformation because I had been involved in HIV right from the very beginning. I mean, how it was spread, people were saying that it's spread by casual contact or it's spread by mosquitoes, or you have to be worried if you go to a restaurant in Greenwich Village and you get a gay waiter that that person can then when he gives you a dish can transmit it to you. All kinds of things like that, that was associated a lot with the stigma. So I certainly was well versed in what misinformation can do in a nonproductive way.
PolitiFact: Thank you. All right, so back in 2017, people may be familiar with this, at a conference in Georgetown you actually predicted that the Trump presidency would see a pandemic. That was accurate. I do think that became a source of misinformation tying you to the origins. But the point is that hopefully the next pandemic is many years away. What do we need to change in order to be more prepared for the next one?
Fauci: Well, there are two aspects of it. One is a public health issue and one is a scientific issue. We saw that our public health capabilities, as much as we were judged to be a very well-prepared country for a pandemic, didn't work out very well. The local public health system was not particularly suited to do the identification, isolation, and contact tracing. That's the first thing. So we have let our local public health systems really, in many respects, decay and diminish in their capability. And that's happened over a considerable period of time.
The next thing is we have to have better international cooperation and collaboration. The strategic approach when you have a public health agenda globally where people communicate and are interconnected. The other thing is really one of more of a science. We were very fortunate, although the public health system itself did not do very well, the thing that really is bailing us out is the science. Namely, the ability to use new platform technologies like mRNA to use immunogens that were utilizing structure-based vaccine design to get a highly immunogenic vaccine to turn out to be 94 to 95% effective when we were hoping that we would get something like 70% effective. So there are two things we need to do for the future. We've got to continue to build up our public health capability, our flexibility that we're able to respond rapidly. And we need to continue making an investment in the science so that we can do with the next pandemic what we successfully did here, namely, in record time get vaccines that were available that were highly efficacious and safe and will be the end game answer to this outbreak.
PolitiFact: You mentioned international cooperation going forward. I think it's pretty fair to say the US has had an America-first approach with the vaccines until fairly recently. And I bring that up in the context of the crisis in India where the problem is so severe. When will the US start distributing vaccines to India or other hard-hit countries with very low vaccination rates?
Fauci: Well, the president has said that we will essentially distribute outside of the country 10% of the total vaccines that we used ourselves. So we're gonna be probably getting to around 600 million, because particularly the two doses times 300 is 600. So likely it will be about 60 million doses right away will go out, first 10 million doses and then a few months later, the other 50 million doses. And that should be reasonably soon.
The issue that I think is important is, I've always felt this way, dating back to the days of HIV, that as a rich nation we do have the moral responsibility to make sure that other countries that are less fortunate than we, that they get the opportunity to get interventions be they anti-HIV drugs, which we did with PEPFAR or its vaccines, which I hopefully will do now. Not alone, we can't do this alone, but with other countries, other developed nations that have the capability of buying vaccines and scaling it up from the companies that are making it for us to be able to, in the pretty immediate future, get vaccine doses available. You can do transfer of technology, which I think is important, but that's not gonna be operational for several months to a year. So if you want to get people vaccines as quickly as possible, I think the way to do it is to make the investment with the companies that are already making it to make an additional scale up to supply it for the developing world.
PolitiFact: Okay, we're running out of time so I have some questions that I have to get to. One is, in the last year, how often did you think about quitting?
Fauci: To be perfectly honest with you, never. That never really occurred to me even at a time when things were very stressful in the Trump White House. I just felt that I needed to stick to it because I was performing an important function and there would be a vacuum or a void if I left.
PolitiFact: All right, and the new benchmark that we've been hearing about, the July 4th goal is getting 70% of Americans with a single dose of a vaccine. If that goes according to plan, what will you be doing on July 4th?
Fauci: I'll be probably having a hot dog in my backyard that I just barbecued.
PolitiFact: Who's gonna be with you?
Fauci: My wife and some friends. I definitely think it would, by that time, and I do believe by July if we do get, as you said, that number, 70% of adults getting at least one vaccine that the level of infection will be low enough, that you're gonna see a substantial pulling back on the rigidity of the recommendations and guidelines from the CDC. I'm almost certain that that's gonna happen.
PolitiFact: Am I correct in remembering that you did want, you were hoping to see your daughters that you haven't seen in --
Fauci: Well, you know that, well, that's going to happen anyway. I mean, there's no doubt about that. In fact, I was very fortunate that one of my daughters who is fully vaccinated came in for Mother's Day this past weekend. And that was one of the best things that happened to me in a very long time because I had not seen her in a year. My youngest daughter, I haven't seen in over a year. So you're right, I mean, one of the things that's a given that as soon as we can get together we're gonna have a family reunion in July.
PolitiFact: What was your Mother's Day set up? You know, a lot of people look to you for guidance about what they should be doing.
Fauci: Oh, well, I mean, what did we do on Mother's Day? Well, we spent time with one out of my three adult daughters. We cooked her favorite meal.
PolitiFact: Inside, outside, mask, no mask?
Fauci: No, no, there were no masks. None of us had masks.
Fauci: You know, we were outside in the back deck. I live in Northwest D.C. We're sitting in the back deck having a beer or a glass of wine. I'm not sure what it was. And then we went inside and we had a really nice meal. My daughter, her favorite dish is spaghetti carbonara and we made it and that was it. And we ate it together and it was a lot of fun.
PolitiFact: I love talking about food. If you don't mind, I have one last question from the audience, which is a nice way to end this. What are your thoughts about the lasting impact of COVID-19 misinformation on trust in health officials and health care workers?
Fauci: Yeah, I think it's gonna be profound and I think it's gonna take us some time to get back that trust. And that's one of the things that really is very disturbing to me is the divisiveness in our country which I think feeds into the misinformation. We can't keep going in this direction, a direction where truth doesn't matter, where things are fabricated, where there's fake and alternate news. I mean, I cannot see how we can go on on this track and be a successful, productive country. We've got to turn that around.
PolitiFact: Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Fauci. I hope this is the first of many conversations with PolitiFact. You're welcome here anytime.
Fauci: Thank you, very nice being with you. Always happy to come back if you'd like me, thanks.
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