While Trump tries to play down the severity of a public health crisis that might affect his reelection prospects, Fauci has laid out the best assessment of the true danger in stark terms.
In testimony Wednesday on Capitol Hill, he warned that the coronavirus has a mortality rate 10 times as great as that of the flu, and refuted Trump’s rosy promise that a vaccine will be ready “in a fairly quick manner.” Fauci also said flatly that the government is “failing” when it comes to the urgent imperative of making widespread testing available.
After federal officials gave lawmakers a briefing on Thursday, a frustrated Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) told me: “Everything was wrapped in confusion. The only one who answers the questions — he not only gives the science, but then he says, let me explain this in pedestrian language — is Dr. Fauci.”
Then again, this is not the first time Fauci has found himself in the position of having to navigate a public health crisis fraught with political land mines. A renowned international expert on the immune system, Fauci took over NIAID in 1984, barely a year and a half after scientists had identified a mysterious retrovirus that was killing thousands of people.
It would be nearly another year before President Ronald Reagan would publicly utter the name of the disease it produced: AIDS. Reagan’s sluggish handling of the epidemic left one of the deepest scars on his legacy.
In 1986, Reagan’s surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, produced a report that described in graphic terms the potential toll of AIDS, projecting that 270,000 Americans might contract it by 1991. The report used explicit language, explaining that the disease was transmitted through “semen and vaginal fluids” and during “oral, anal and vaginal intercourse.”
Conservatives approved of some of what was in Koop’s document: It warned against “freewheeling casual sex” and asserted that the surest means of preventing AIDS were through abstinence and monogamy. But they weren’t so happy with the surgeon general’s recommendation that condoms be used as a fallback.
Koop was concerned that his findings were being buried by the Reagan administration, so two years later, he and Fauci cooked up a bold idea: mailing an abridged version of his report to every single one of the 107 million households and postal boxes in the country.
The problem, however, was that the surgeon general lacked the budget to do it. As Fauci recounted to me during a 2018 interview, he told Koop: “You know, there is a mechanism called an interagency transfer.” Fauci had the authority to provide funds to get the project off the ground, because combating AIDS related to his own agency’s core mission.
Congress picked up the idea and ordered the largest mass mailing in U.S. history. It also stipulated that the seven-page brochure be “distributed without necessary clearance of the content by any official, organization or office” — in other words, that it not be edited to suit anyone’s political agenda.
In addition to being printed in English and Spanish, “Understanding AIDS” went out in Chinese, Portuguese, Haitian-Creole, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Braille. It debunked many myths about the disease, for instance stating unequivocally that AIDS is not spread by mosquitoes, and could not be caught through casual contact with saliva, sweat or toilet seats.
Subsequent surveys found that nearly 87 million adults perused part or all of the booklet — making it the most widely read publication in the country in July 1988, with Reader’s Digest coming in a distant second with 48.5 million readers.
Of course, there are many differences in scale and severity between the AIDS epidemic and the coronavirus threat. While most who contract coronavirus will recover, AIDS during the 1980s was a death sentence wrapped in stigma.
But as Fauci well understands, all infectious diseases have something in common: Accurate information is one of the most powerful weapons for fighting them.
Fauci has already shown how important it is to hit a microscopic enemy with a sledgehammer of truth. A yet-untold number of Americans will be betting their lives on him to do it again.