The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is it time for Fauci to exit the stage?

Anthony S. Fauci answers questions during a meeting with senators in May 2020. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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We have long, and perhaps forever, been a nation divided about various things, but rarely about something as serious as covid-19. We are at odds about whether to get a vaccine, to wear a mask or to get a booster. And we now have two voices dueling for public attention — one wise and the other dangerous.

Anthony S. Fauci needs no introduction. He is a career immunologist at the National Institutes of Health and has been at our bedside through multiple presidents of both parties going back nearly 40 years.

He has a rival now in a rogue virologist named Robert Malone. He is probably less familiar to you. But in anti-vaccine and anti-mandate circles, he is an overnight sensation, a celebrity who earns ovations at rallies and has millions of followers across social media for discouraging vaccines and comparing U.S. health officials to Nazis.

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Though they represent day and night, these two scientists remind us that you don’t always end a war with the general you start with. Two years into this fight, we need a new chief medical officer. I say this not because I lack faith in Fauci — I don’t — but because he has ceased to be as effective as we need him to be in the information battle against covid-19. Now 80, he attracts only a portion of the nation he once did and, I fear, everyone is, to be blunt, a little sick of him.

Many sensible folks doubtless share my nostalgia for the good old days when science and reason appeared to lead the conversation. Desperate for a solution to covid, we tuned in to hear the latest advice from the best scientists. The stalwart Fauci was the wise Oracle of Delphi to then-President Donald Trump’s babbling brook about household bleach as an injectable, anti-viral agent — or whatever Trump had divined in the moments just before showtime.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but Fauci appears less confident of late, perhaps weary of his own voice and exhausted by two years of on-camera appearances. He appears physically smaller somehow, as though reduced by overexposure. He has enemies on the right, of course, but also on the left; consider anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s characterization of Fauci in his recent book as wielding “power enjoyed by few rulers and no doctor in history.”

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By comparison, Malone looms over the other half of the nation like a Thanksgiving Day parade cartoon balloon. Eschewing the vaccine mission he once supported, he’s become a rogue celebrity of the right, receiving ovations across the multimedia universe, and building a Twitter following of nearly 400,000.

That is, before Twitter shut him down for violating the platform’s covid-misinformation policy. Purveyors of conspiracy theories and misinformation are in big demand these days. Malone was cheered at a rally in Washington on Dec. 31 and has enjoyed quality time with Fox News anchors Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham.

Though his résumé is impressive, including early research into the mRNA technology behind some coronavirus vaccines, Malone is considered by peers and former colleagues to be more shaman than medical expert. On podcaster Joe Rogan’s show, he made the disproved claim that a vaccine puts people who have already contracted covid at greater risk. He has told people not to get vaccines or boosters but to develop natural immunity.

He also has said that American society has fallen prey to “mass-formation psychosis,” which is a not-quite-accurate way of saying “groupthink.” To whom does he think he’s speaking?

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Alarmed by Malone’s statements — and Rogan’s reach — more than 260 doctors, scientists and health professionals signed an open letter urging Spotify to crack down on covid-19 misinformation. But money speaks louder than science these days. Rogan, a stand-up comic whose podcast has been among the most popular for the past two years, signed an exclusive licensing deal with Spotify this past year that’s reportedly worth $100 million.

Whatever he’s hoping to accomplish, Malone is misleading his audience and playing on populist paranoia. And there is a big market for paranoia these days. Thus, one could argue that this would be a terrible time for Fauci to leave the stage.

But I would argue that you can’t win an information war when your champion has lost his luster. As Americans grow wearier of bad news and angrier about various failures of leadership, they’re likelier to lean toward those who make them, if nothing else, feel better. We are in a dangerous spot when affirmation is such a powerful tonic.

More than ever, Americans need to be informed by someone they trust, to whom they can relate — and from whom they can hear bad news. As Fauci’s voice grows weaker — and because Malone is plainly not our tribune — a new messenger of hope in the service of science is sorely needed.