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Dr. Anthony Fauci looks back on his long-lasting career in healthcare

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I have lost track of the number of times I have interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci these last 2 1/2 years. Through two administrations, through countless waves and variants, Dr. Fauci has taken our calls. We have talked about masks, vaccines, tests and the vicious politics that have surrounded and influenced the pandemic. Well, we are going to talk once more today about COVID, but that is not the main focus of our conversation. Today, we are talking about the fact that after 38 years as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, after more than half a century at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Fauci is stepping down in December. He joins me now live. Hey there, Dr. Fauci.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Hi, Mary Louise. Good to be with you. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. So I got to ask about the timing because I know you had always planned to step down before the end of the Biden administration. This will obviously be well before. Why December?

FAUCI: Well, first of all, I had been thinking about this, Mary Louise, now for over a year. I was going to consider seriously stepping down at the end of the Trump administration. But when President Biden was elected and before he actually was inaugurated, he called me up and asked me if I would be his primary and chief medical adviser, which I felt very honored to do, and I gladly accepted it. I thought that would last about a year because I actually thought, as many of us did, that we would have COVID behind us after an additional year.

KELLY: And you wanted to see it through.

FAUCI: And I wanted to see it through. And as it turns out, it's clear that we will get COVID under control and make it much, much less impactful on our social order. But it's not going to be eradicated, and it's not going to be eliminated. So I felt the time was right to make an announcement now and give a bit of a long runway and just step down in December. Because I think by that time, Mary Louise, I believe we'll have a much better control in the sense of the epidemic. And the pandemic will likely essentially become more of an endemic situation, something that we can live with and doesn't disrupt us. So that's my...

KELLY: Well, I sure hope you're right. And I think you just began to answer a question I wanted to put to you. I was looking at the transcripts of our past conversations. I have asked you over and over as this thing has - I don't even know what the right verb is - as we have lived through this pandemic where we are in the arc of this thing. It sounds like you don't think we're ever going to say goodbye to COVID, but that by the end of this year, you are hopeful we will be living with it. It will be manageable. We can go about our lives.

FAUCI: I believe so. But it's not guaranteed, Mary Louise, because there are things that we can do to make that more possible. And one of the things that I've spoken to you numerous times over the last couple of years is we've got to do better with vaccination. We only have 67% of the population of this country is vaccinated and only half of those are boosted. The fall is coming up. We have a bivalent BA.5 vaccine boost that will be available by early to mid-September. If we can get the people who've not been boosted to get boosted - and certainly those who've not been vaccinated to get vaccinated - we could be where you and I are talking about now, where we want to be, as we get into the end of this year and next year, that the virus will be at a low enough level as to not be a great perturbing of our social order, which I believe it can be and I hope it will be.

KELLY: Speaking of getting vaccinated, we're talking right now about COVID, but does it weigh on you to be leaving when we're not at the end of the coronavirus pandemic? And now we're looking at monkeypox and, of all things, a resurgence of polio.

FAUCI: Well, let's take each of these separately, Mary Louise, because they are both...

KELLY: Briefly please, yeah.

FAUCI: Yeah, I will do that. They are both able to be addressed. First of all, with monkeypox, unlike the early years of HIV, we know what the pathogen is. We have diagnostics, we have therapeutics and we have antivirals. So we just need to implement and make accessible to the people at risk. And we will be able to control monkeypox if we do it correctly. Polio is a case of paralytic polio in New York. Polio is 99% preventable by vaccines. If you want to stop polio dead in its tracks, get the children who are unvaccinated vaccinated. And you and I would not be talking about polio.

KELLY: Well, exactly. We know that that is the answer. And yet here we are talking about polio in New York.

FAUCI: Right, exactly. And that's because if you look at certain places in New York, such as in Rockland County, only about 60% of the children are vaccinated. And in some sections of the county, as few as 37% are vaccinated. That's unacceptable. We've got to get the children vaccinated.

KELLY: One more question on COVID. We all know so much more about COVID than we did back in March 2020, including you. With the exquisite benefit of hindsight, is there anything you wish you could go back and do differently?

FAUCI: Of course, Mary Louise, there are many things that we would do, but it's just one of those things if we knew then what we knew - what we know now, we would have done a lot of things differently. We didn't know the capability of this virus to spread, particularly when people are without symptoms. We didn't understand fully that it was aerosolized. We didn't fully appreciate a number of things in January and early February that, if we did, we certainly would have done things differently.

KELLY: Yeah. Anything stand out to you?

FAUCI: Well, I think it's the issue - you know, we often get criticized for having people, you know, restrict their activity and wear masks. Back then, if we knew that the virus was insidiously under the radar screen spreading, we would have been much more aggressive of asking people to avoid congregate settings indoors and to wear masks, absolutely.

KELLY: Choir practice would have been out way earlier. Yeah.

FAUCI: All the things that were objected to, we would have pushed harder on.

KELLY: Let me step you back a little bit. I know you have said you hope to spend some of your time this next chapter encouraging young people to enter government service. You and I have talked about how vicious the politics can be that come with that work. I know you've experienced that firsthand. How are you going to make the case to young people when public health in this country has become so politicized? People like you have become targets of anger, even violence.

FAUCI: Well, despite the negative aspects that you just mentioned, there are so many beautiful things about science. A feeling of gratification and contribution to mankind, that's what I'm going to stress to the younger generation of scientists and people who are considering going into science. Public service, particularly in the arena of public health, medicine and science is an extraordinary profession, and I want to encourage young people to do that. They should not be put aback by the politicization. That is there. It's unfortunate, but we can do it even in that context.

KELLY: Just in the moments we have left, is there a moment you will tell them about that will stick with you, a site, a person, a patient?

FAUCI: Oh, yes, of course. You know, particularly in the early years of HIV, when we're taking care of desperately ill people, all of whom were dying, and then now we wind up with a situation where we have drugs, antivirals, that are literally giving these people normal life, that is a feeling that is just wonderful, to go from absolute disaster up to a lifesaving drug.

KELLY: Dr. Anthony Fauci - for 38 years, he has been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He will hold that job for a few more months. Dr. Fauci, thank you.

FAUCI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.