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Opinion Is it time for Anthony Fauci to step aside?

Anthony S. Fauci answers questions during a videoconference with the Senate health committee in May 2020. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Francis S. Collins’s announcement that he will step down as the director of the National Institutes of Health at the end of the year raises the question of whether Anthony S. Fauci should follow suit.

Though Fauci’s career in public health has been as extraordinary as it has been exemplary, the past 18 months have taken a toll on his effectiveness. Trying to lead a deeply divided nation through the pandemic — when part of the nation does not credit the virus or the vaccine that alleviates it — has left Fauci overexposed and wrestling with a credibility gap.

Fauci’s guidance this past weekend about whether Americans should gather at the holidays this year — Fauci said it was “too soon to tell” — triggered eye-rolls around the country. Has he noticed the sellout crowds at many football games and outdoor concerts? America is done with lockdowns and doomsayers. The next day, Fauci stressed that vaccinated people could safely gather. But this clarification was a day late, undermining his authority.

The job now is to explain to the president — Fauci is, among other things, chief medical adviser to President Biden — and to the public only what the certain science says. He should present unknowns as unknowns. After a year of virus-wrestling, we all know that the guidance can change.

Fauci, 80, does not run the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but he has been a senior advisor to both presidents who have battled the covid-19 pandemic and has presented himself as the face of the nation’s public health bureaucracy. Either by choice or under orders, he put himself at the center of every controversy — appearing on television, radio and podcasts of every kind in the past year and a half. No one could possibly survive that gantlet intact.

Fauci is also a reminder that our government’s handling of this crisis has been pathetic. It began with the chaotic and slow response to the appearance of the virus in Wuhan, China. We would eventually learn that our government sent grant money to support research activities in the same Chinese lab that was separately conducting gain-of-function research into bat coronaviruses. Did we support that work directly? No, but such money is fungible to a research institution.

Then, when early and rapid development of effective testing was necessary, the CDC completely blew its chance, and did so while denying others the right to license their tests, costing the nation crucial weeks in the earliest phase of the pandemic.

Fauci was not responsible for the actions — or lack thereof — of the CDC (he works in a different part of the government). But when I asked him about the testing failure on March 17, 2020, he responded by virtually dismissing anyone of culpability.

“You know, it was a complicated series of multiple things that conflated that just, you know, went the wrong way,” he said, adding. “Nobody’s fault. There wasn’t any bad guys there. It just happened.”

I agree in part: No one intended to mess up the production of an effective test. But this fiasco was someone’s fault and it diminished Fauci’s credibility when he adopted the zero-accountability model early on. To this day, we don’t know what happened.

The testing development breakdown followed Fauci’s decision (supported by the Trump White House) to tell Americans early on that masks were unnecessary. Fauci and many others had been concerned that a run on masks would leave front-line medical personnel without critical personal protective equipment at a moment when such gear was already running short. Most can understand his motive, but once any “noble lie” is told and later confirmed to have been false, don’t expect the speaker’s credibility to remain unscathed.

While many blame former president Donald Trump for the credibility deficit, he’s been gone for nearly nine months. Confidence in the CDC and FDA — much less Biden — has not skyrocketed. The CDC’s uncertainty over the efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine did not add to the trust factor. Now, with boosters available, the CDC and FDA combined to issue an incoherent mess of rules and exemptions instead of a simple: “Get a booster six months after your second shot” message.

My conversation with Fauci last week revealed that the good doctor is now embattled: He does not understand that he has become a polarizing figure. He rejects most every criticism, believes all the backing and forthing is the consequence of changing data. He struggles, as far as I can tell, to admit error.

The portion of the country that has resisted his prescriptions and admonitions isn’t going to change its mind about him now. It is time for a reset. The first step to conquering such a problem: Admit that it exists.