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Dr. Anthony Fauci on his long career that spanned the AIDS and COVID crises

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now a man who's been a familiar figure to Americans for decades, especially since 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: My message - and my final message may be the final message I give you from this podium - is that please, for your own safety, for that of your family, get your updated COVID-19 shot as soon as you're eligible.

SIMON: Dr. Anthony Fauci leaves government this month after 54 years with the National Institutes of Health. For 38 of those years, he was director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and he oversaw the government's response to HIV, AIDS, Ebola, swine flu, and, of course, COVID-19. Dr. Fauci joins us now.

Dr. Fauci, thanks so much for being with us.

FAUCI: My pleasure, Scott. Good to be with you.

SIMON: How do you feel about leaving now?

FAUCI: Well, you know, it's bittersweet. Obviously, you can't be coming onto campus literally every day, including most Saturdays and sometimes Sundays, and then realize you're not going to come back. So there's a sadness to it. But I'm also excited a bit, Scott, about what lies ahead because, you know, I'm not retiring in the classic sense. I'm stepping down from government service. But there are some things that I want to do outside of the context of the government that I'm actually looking forward to.

SIMON: You going to write a memoir?

FAUCI: That will probably be part of it, Scott, because what I want to do is write, lecture and to advise for people who request and require my advice and some possibility of making them benefit from the fact that I've been in a very unusual position, as well as the fact that I've had the privilege of advising seven presidents. So I hope that experience can be passed on, hopefully, the younger generation of scientists and would-be scientists to inspire them to perhaps get into public service.

SIMON: Let me ask you about serving seven presidents, different administrations. Science is supposed to be above politics, but do you need some political skills to do the job you've been doing for so long?

FAUCI: Well, I don't know if it's political skills, Scott, rather than an appreciation to stick with the science. And you get involved in policy, but there's a difference between policy and politics. The thing that has disturbed me over the past few years is that political persuasions and ideologies have conflicted with good scientific public health principles.

SIMON: Dr. Fauci, did any U.S. president ever say something in a public setting that made you slap your forehead in amazement?

FAUCI: Scott, yes. In fact, I think I did do that. Unfortunately, it became very well known. Yeah. I mean, obviously, I don't want...

SIMON: Take us back to that, if you could.

FAUCI: First of all, I want to say that during the Trump administration, I was put in a position to have to push back on things that we said publicly in front of me that just were not true, were not based on scientific data, on evidence. I just could not stay silent on that. And I was put in the uncomfortable position of having to publicly disagree with that. I felt I just needed - because of my own preservation of my own personal and professional integrity, as well as what I consider my primary responsibility, and that is to the American public.

SIMON: When you say it puts you in the uncomfortable position, may I ask, an uncomfortable position or exactly the position somebody with your title should be in?

FAUCI: Well, it's both, Scott, because, A, it's the position I should be in, and people should do that. And I did it. You know, it cost me a lot of waves of hostility against me, which I'm still feeling now, to this date. But when I said uncomfortable, I mean, you know, I don't like the idea that there's conflict between the highest office of the land and scientific facts.

SIMON: Let me take you back a bit to the days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And you were criticized early on for not being responsive enough, although I was able to interview Larry Kramer, the activist who in time saluted you. What are the lessons of that time that you think can help us now?

FAUCI: Well, that was a very important period of time, Scott, because what it did is really changed the paradigm. We have to listen to the people who we are trying to help. And when we finally listened, it became very clear to me that what they were saying made perfect sense. And that's why we changed the way we interact with the constituency groups when you have a disease like HIV.

SIMON: To be plain, a lot of the people who protested at that time felt the government wasn't approving what were still designated as experimental treatments and therapies quickly enough to help the people who were dying then.

FAUCI: That is correct. And that's when we became more flexible. And there was a concern that it would interfere with the integrity of the science, and it did not.

SIMON: You made some reference to the sometimes very intense personal criticism you've received. Can you help us understand what it's been like for you and your family?

FAUCI: Obviously, it has been uncomfortable and stressful. I've - have threats upon my life that were credible threats, resulting in the jailing and confinement of a couple of people. My family have been harassed and threatened. That, to me, is just - it is an expression and a reflection on the profound, I believe, unreasonable divisiveness in our society. Why you would threaten a public health official, a physician and a scientist who's doing nothing but trying to preserve and protect the health of the American public is a very sorry testimony upon where our society is at this particular time.

SIMON: Do you hear from people who say that something of which you were a part helped save their lives or the life of a loved one?

FAUCI: Yeah. I would say, Scott, that when you look quantitatively at the number of people who are very grateful for the work that I and my colleagues have done, that the positive feedback I get overwhelmingly outstrips the negative - I mean, like, 10 to 1 - despite the loudness and the megaphone given to the other side by social media. It looks like they dominate, and they don't come near to dominating.

SIMON: Dr. Anthony Fauci. Thank you so much.

FAUCI: Pleasure to be with you, Scott. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITEST BOY ALIVE SONG, "GOLDEN CAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.