The demonization of Dr. Fauci

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Last month, Republican members of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic blasted Dr. Anthony Fauci for his support of mask and vaccine mandates, lockdowns and school closures.

They alleged that Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) between 1984 and 2022, covered up U.S. government funding of research in a lab in Wuhan, China that produced the COVID-19 virus, brushing aside his assertion that such a result from this particular project was “molecularly impossible.”

Following the subcommittee hearing, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) declared that “Mr. Fauci belongs in a prison. He should be tried for mass murder and crimes against humanity.” So many people hate him, Greene added, “because he is an a–hole and a liar.”

The attack by Greene is not an anomaly. In an op-ed published in July 2020, Peter Navarro, director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy in the Trump administration, maintained that Fauci “has been wrong about everything,” especially the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID. USA Today soon acknowledged that Navarro’s claims did not meet its “fact-checking standards.”

In November 2020, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, posted a video proposing that Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray should be beheaded: “I’d put the heads on pikes. As a warning to federal bureaucrats. Either get with the program or you’re gone.”

In 2021, a Maryland man named Thomas Patrick Connally Jr., using an anonymous and encrypted account, sent emails vowing to make Fauci “pay with your children’s blood for your crimes.” And to drag Fauci into the street, break every bone in his body “with crowbars and sledgehammers” and set him on fire. In 2022, Connally was sentenced to three years in prison.

Fauci also appeared on the “hit” list of a man, “called upon by God to combat evil demons,” and possessing an assault rifle, ammunition and body armor when he was arrested. Death threats against Fauci became so common, a team of special agents accompanied him everywhere he went.

The demonization of Anthony Fauci strongly suggests that partisan polarization, contempt for expertise, coarseness, cruelty and a cultish propensity for conspiracy theories and violence have entered the mainstream of America.

Judged by any reasonable criteria, Fauci was an exemplary public servant. During his 50-year- long career at NIAID, Fauci played multiple roles, often simultaneously: research scientist; physician to individual patients; administrator, providing direction and support to thousands of infectious disease specialists; advisor to policy makers in the federal government, including seven presidents, on the threats posed by various communicable diseases, including COVID19. He was the chief explainer to the American people about preventive measures, vaccines, treatments and diagnostics.

Between 1983 and 2003, Fauci was one of the most cited research scientists in the world. Fauci’s discovery of how to re-dose cancer drugs transformed a 98 percent mortality rate for individuals with the autoimmune inflammatory disease vasculitis into a 93 percent remission rate. NIAID research spearheaded by Fauci resulted in the development of drugs that enabled HIV-positive patients to live long and productive lives, while ensuring that they could not infect their sexual partners.

Convinced that the U.S. has “a moral responsibility as a rich nation to not have people suffer and die because of where they live and the circumstances in which they were born,” Fauci was also a prime mover in the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which distributed HIV drugs across Africa, saving millions of lives. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Fauci the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his contributions to public health.

Americans clearly were — and are — sharply divided about how to address the pandemic. That said, Fauci’s critics should acknowledge that he tried to follow the science during a fast-moving crisis where reliable information was in short supply. That the NIAID provided essential scientific and logistical support for the development of COVID-19 vaccines through Operation Warp Speed, the immensely successful initiative of the Trump administration. That Fauci did not have the authority to impose mask or vaccination mandates, order lockdowns or school closures. And that he was right that COVID-19 would not quickly “disappear,” hydroxychloroquine was not effective and ingesting bleach wouldn’t act “almost like a cleaning.”

Fauci could have made tens or hundreds of millions of dollars by joining the pharmaceutical industry. Instead, he remained a government employee. Fauci’s top annual salary, $480,654, with increases at federally mandated levels, is attributable largely to the length of his service as director of the NIAID. Instead of profiting from vaccines, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) implied, Fauci made less than $200 a year from patent royalty payments. Fauci and his wife still live in the modest home they purchased in 1977.

Voter registration records confirm he is not affiliated with either the Democratic or the Republican parties.

Anthony Fauci should be lionized for his outstanding contributions to public health, not demonized.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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