If the participation of the relatively few federal employees who tortured terrorist suspects shocked Americans, the efforts of many more feds in the fight against Ebola should make taxpayers proud.
Though the disease is centered 4,500 miles away and has affected very few in the United States, federal employees, both civilian and military, are in the forefront of the battle against the deadly disease.
No one has an estimate of the number of federal workers involved, but several federal agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, have assigned staffers to Ebola.
One of them is Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health.
With frequent appearances in the media, on Capitol Hill and with President Obama, Fauci has been a highly visible face of the American fight against Ebola, though he is quick to praise the many others in his and other agencies who are just as engaged.
In some ways, the Ebola fight reminds him of an earlier time at NIAID.
When he became director in 1984, the nation was confronting the HIV/AIDS crisis. A similarity between now and then, he said, is that during both periods, people got “anxiety about things that were scientifically unrealistic,” such as “completely ridiculous” rumors about how the ailments are spread.
But when HIV was infecting thousands in this country, he said, the general public paid little attention to it. That’s just the opposite of now, when Ebola affects few in this country and infects even fewer yet has generated widespread concern. It dominated the news for weeks, to the point that for two weeks in a row, Fauci pulled a “full Ginsburg,” meaning he was on five Sunday news interview shows.
Fauci, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, is an NIH lifer, having worked there since 1968, with the exception of one year away as a young doctor for additional training.
He said he was drawn to the agency by “the density of intellectual firepower, the facilities, the critical mass of really, really smart people.”
The Federal Diary spoke with Fauci at his NIH office in Bethesda about the ways the federal workforce is fighting Ebola. He began, in this edited transcript, by listing the work of various agencies, then turned to NIH.
Fauci: We have scientists who developed a basic understanding of the disease, what we call pathogenesis, who are developing vaccines. Our federal employees, our NIH employees, have been intimately involved in everything from the basic research that led to the development of the vaccine. We will be the major implementers of the clinical trial in Liberia, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be the major implementer of the clinical trial in Sierra Leone. So federal employees are very, very heavily involved in the response from a research and public health standpoint for Ebola.
About how many NIH employees are involved?
Fauci: NIH employees took care of Nina Pham, the Dallas nurse who got the disease after caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, who died. If you look at all of the doctors and nurses who just took care of Nina Pham, there are about 45 or 46 of those. If you look at the people who are developing the vaccine, there’s about 25 of those. And then if you look at the other people who are doing diagnostics, there’s another 20. And that’s just the NIH. So you’re really talking close to 100 people.
When something like Ebola hits, do you have to turn away from other important issues to deal with the emerging crisis?
Fauci: Your day goes from a 16-hour day to a 20-hour day. During the crisis period, you essentially don’t sleep, 24/7; that’s a reality. I was doing almost nothing but Ebola for several weeks in late summer, early fall. It was truly 24/7.
Have there been any budgetary obstacles to progress?
Fauci: We moved money around to accelerate the effort. Obviously, the NIH budget has been flat for over 10 years. The purchasing power of NIH over that time diminished by 22 to 25 percent. That obviously slows things down. When we accelerated, we moved resources around from other areas.
What does a crisis like Ebola do for the workforce at NIH? Do more people want to work here?
Fauci: I think so. You should have seen how proud the NIH community was when the president came here and congratulated us. The morale here is great.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson .