Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that Dr. Anthony Fauci’s inconsistencies on the pandemic have ruined his public credibility. You can find a counterpoint here, where Charles Kolb argues that, despite his mistakes, Fauci still has a high degree of credibility.
On July 23, Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department, accusing National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a former adviser to President Donald Trump and Biden’s current chief COVID expert, of lying during Senate testimony in which Fauci insisted NIH never funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Paul’s request is a startling public rebuke of the controversial Fauci, who has been both revered and maligned by millions of Americans.
Fauci, who achieved renown in HIV and immunological research, has been honored and respected by peers. Until COVID, he was largely unknown to the public. With the pandemic, Fauci became a political figure who sought the limelight and appeared to thrive on media and public attention.
HIV is a behaviorally associated disease. By contrast, COVID-19 is caused by a contagious respiratory virus, SARS-CoV-2. Absent effective vaccines, we had no control over its long-term trajectory. Most people would have been infected, but most would not become seriously ill.
Fauci’s HIV experience appears to have colored his approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. He placed heavy emphasis on personal behavior and tight governmental controls. Without supportive empirical data or an understanding of the potential consequences, Fauci advocated for “flattening the curve” through punishing lockdowns involving unprecedented restrictions on personal and economic liberty.
The lockdowns destroyed the livelihoods and decimated the finances of millions of Americans. They contributed to increased substance abuse and other mental illnesses and probably adversely impacted other medical outcomes. Still, COVID-19 rapidly spread in areas with the strictest mitigation measures.
Fauci publicly encouraged exaggeration of individual COVID-19 risk, while striking a more realistic tone in a medical publication. Our exclusive focus on unrepresentative SARS-CoV-2 infected individuals who came to medical attention biased our perception of the disease. Fauci tacitly acknowledged the extent to which this “ascertainment bias” overestimated the risks of SARS-CoV-2 infection for most people in a March 26, 2020 New England Journal of Medicine editorial. He wrote, “If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%. This suggests the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza …”
Fauci’s assessment was supported by early data, historical experience, and simple logic. Multiple subsequent serology studies in the United States and abroad have shown many more infections than reported cases, dramatically lowering estimates of COVID-19’s true infection fatality rate, and it was clear who was at high risk.
Fauci struck a different tone before Congress in March 11 testimony when he proclaimed that SARS-CoV-2 was at least 10 times “more lethal” than the seasonal flu. This meant the death rate was 1% or more, contradicting his published article.
Fauci’s shifts in position on face coverings caused confusion and doubt. During a March 2020 60 Minutes interview, unambiguously said there was “no reason to be walking around with a mask. … When you are in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little better and it might even block a droplet … often there are unintended consequences, people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face. …”
Fauci had expressed the expert dogma that evidence did not support mask-wearing by the public to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. However, when CDC began recommending face coverings on April 3, Fauci became a proponent. He claimed newly acquired knowledge about mild and asymptomatic infections changed his opinion. Fauci later attributed his reversal to deception, asserting he wanted to preserve masks for healthcare workers. He added the novel position face coverings not only prevent spread of infection but also protect the wearer.
When CDC jettisoned its face covering mandate for vaccinated individuals last May, Fauci supported the change. After CDC reverted to mask-mandates on July 27, Fauci spoke in favor of it, arguing that reimposition of mask mandates would encourage unvaccinated individuals to get vaccinated. Throughout this time, the underlying data had not substantially changed – there was a lack of high-quality evidence that face coverings prevent the dissemination of COVID-19 or any other respiratory virus.
Surprisingly, Fauci has ignored the impact of immunity gained through infection — data suggest previously infected individuals have protective immunity at least as effective as that conferred by vaccination. Protection through infection may even have greater breadth and durability because of the exposure to more viral proteins.
The brightest of minds and the best of experts are often wrong when confronted with the unknowable. However, Fauci’s abandonment of the relative obscurity of scientific investigation and the anonymity of government bureaucracies for the political spotlight should be a lesson for would-be medical and scientific political figures – be prepared to face the music. Such figures have an obligation to understand the consequences of their words and their public roles for the broader scientific enterprise.
Roger D. Klein, M.D., J.D., a pathologist, is an expert with the Regulatory Transparency Project’s FDA and Health Working Group, a faculty fellow at the Center for Law, Science and Innovation at the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law, and a policy advisor to the Heartland Institute. A former advisor to HHS, FDA, and CDC, he completed his medical training at Yale School of Medicine and received his law degree from Yale Law School.