Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dr. Anthony Fauci Emerges As Rare Public Face Of Scientific Guidance


Recent surveys have found that most Americans cannot name a single living scientist. Well, today the results might be different. Dr. Anthony Fauci has been everywhere during the coronavirus epidemic. In particular, he's often contradicted President Trump while standing right beside him during briefings. Joining us to talk about Dr. Fauci's role is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, who has known Fauci for more than 30 years.

Hi, Richard.


SHAPIRO: Anthony Fauci has served under six consecutive presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan during the start of the AIDS epidemic. How has he managed to gain the confidence of Republicans and Democrats?

HARRIS: Well, he has built his reputation over a very long time. Fauci's been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since the early 1980s, and he's managed to keep a lab going and to see patients at the same time. His first claim to fame was to help convince the Reagan administration to take AIDS seriously. In doing that, he won over AIDS activists and politicians alike. Here's George H.W. Bush, who was asked during a 1988 presidential debate to name a hero.


GEORGE H W BUSH: I think of Dr. Fauci - probably never heard of him. You did. Anne (ph) heard him. He's a very fine research top doctor at National Institute of Health, working hard doing something about research on this disease of AIDS.

HARRIS: And Fauci, who is now 79 years old, has maintained his status by stepping up through all sorts of other health disasters, from the anthrax attacks in 2001 to the more recent Ebola outbreak.

SHAPIRO: Remarkable that he's doing this at age 79. And he has not been shy about correcting President Trump on live TV with the president standing beside him, which is not something that Trump often tolerates.

HARRIS: That's true. He's built a reputation for being the scientist who tells it like it is. For example, on Monday, when President Trump said he hoped to lift restrictions involving the coronavirus by Easter, Fauci, in good diplomatic form, deflated that idea.


ANTHONY FAUCI: That's really very flexible. We just had a conversation with the president in the Oval Office talking about, you know, you can look at a date, but you got to be very flexible.

SHAPIRO: So, Richard, how does he get away with it?

HARRIS: Well, he has a reputation for being a straight talker and also for being right. But it is quite something to watch, particularly watching Fauci side by side with a president who has a reputation for firing people who don't toe his line. Here's an example from last week. Trump has been incredibly enthusiastic about using a malaria drug to treat or possibly even to prevent coronavirus infections.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I sure as hell think we ought to give it a try. I mean, there's been some interesting things happened and some good - very good things. Let's see what happens. We have nothing to lose. You know the expression? What the hell do you have to lose?

HARRIS: At the briefing the following day, a reporter asked Fauci if he thought that malaria drug could actually protect people from the coronavirus.


FAUCI: The answer is no. And the information that you're referring to specifically is anecdotal. It was not done in a controlled clinical trial. So you really can't make any definitive statement about it.

HARRIS: And later, Fauci brushed aside the disagreement by saying the president was merely expressing his hopes while he was sticking to the science.

SHAPIRO: OK. So the latest disagreement is the president saying he wants to end restrictions that are hurting the economy, hopefully by Easter. Fauci and other scientists are saying that's not possible until the epidemic is under control. How do you think that's likely to play out?

HARRIS: I think that really will test this relationship. The president is understandably eager to restart the economy, but scientists are equally adamant that if you do that too soon, the problem will be even worse, and the pain will last even longer. If Trump decides to follow his gut on this rather than the advice of scientists, that will set up a conflict more challenging than any that I can ever think of that Fauci has faced.

SHAPIRO: So what's the likelihood that the president gets tired of being constrained and contradicted and pushes Fauci off the White House coronavirus response team as he has so many other experts in other fields over the years?

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, we have learned that nobody can predict what the president will do, but from a public health standpoint, that would be a huge mistake. Trump has restricted traffic at the borders, which can easily be interpreted as a political move. But Fauci has backed him up on that, and that has muted criticism from experts who don't think border crossing - closings do much good. You know, in a crisis, you need that trusted voice when people are being asked to make big personal sacrifices. Fauci has the confidence of people who don't trust Trump but also many who do trust the president. And I think losing that would be a huge blow.

SHAPIRO: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, thank you.

HARRIS: Anytime, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.