Dr. Anthony Fauci said Monday he plans to step down from his post at the National Institutes of Health in December after a decades-long career in which he solidified his reputation as a steady Washington hand in health crises before the coronavirus made him a household name and surprisingly polarizing figure.
Dr. Fauci has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, during the Reagan administration. The 81-year doctor said he is leaving his current position but won’t be putting his feet up.
“I am not retiring. After more than 50 years of government service, I plan to pursue the next phase of my career while I still have so much energy and passion for my field,” he said in a lengthy statement. “I want to use what I have learned as NIAID Director to continue to advance science and public health and to inspire and mentor the next generation of scientific leaders as they help prepare the world to face future infectious disease threats.”
Dr. Fauci rose to prominence during the HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Zika crises before the coronavirus made him an instantly recognizable face who adorned bestselling bobbleheads and threw out a first pitch for the Washington Nationals.
“I came to know him as a dedicated public servant, and a steady hand with wisdom and insight honed over decades at the forefront of some of our most dangerous and challenging public health crises,” said President Biden, who noted his decision to elevate Dr. Fauci as his chief medical adviser. “In that role, I’ve been able to call him at any hour of the day for his advice as we’ve tackled this once-in-a-generation pandemic. His commitment to the work is unwavering, and he does it with an unparalleled spirit, energy, and scientific integrity.”
A trusted Brooklyn-accented voice for many in the scientific community, he drew ire from Mr. Trump and many conservative leaders for advising stay-at-home policies and other precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Mr. Trump accused him of flip-flopping on key advice, including whether masks would be necessary to box out the virus in early 2020. They also said he oversold the power of COVID-19 vaccines to combat infection versus severe disease and wasn’t strict enough in overseeing U.S. funding for a grantee at a virology institute in Wuhan, China — the city where the virus first appeared.
House Republicans, who are rising ahead of the midterm elections, likely would have pulled him in for intense hearings if they retake control of the chamber.
“It’s good to know that with his retirement, Dr. Fauci will have ample time to appear before Congress and share under oath what he knew about the Wuhan lab, as well as the ever-changing guidance under his watch that resulted in wrongful mandates being imposed on Americans,” said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican.
Some pundits said Dr. Fauci, who did not shy away from media during his tenure, was a bit overexposed during the pandemic. He became a polarizing figure after he was repeatedly asked to predict what the wily virus would do or was asked to wade into difficult decisions that would normally be left to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Biden officials said Dr. Fauci will leave NIH with his reputation intact.
“This is a decision we all knew would eventually come but hoped never would,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said. “As HHS Secretary, I am privileged to know Dr. Fauci professionally and personally and deeply admire his decades of public service that have undoubtedly improved the health of millions of people globally.”
Dr. Fauci’s current salary is $480,654, or more than what the president earns in a year.
Open the Books, a nonprofit government-spending watchdog, said that makes Dr. Fauci the highest-paid federal employee among those whose pay is funded solely by taxpayers.
The nonprofit estimated Dr. Fauci’s first-year pension payout would be $414,000 — still higher than the president’s yearly salary of $400,000 — although its analysis was based on Dr. Fauci retiring at the end of Mr. Biden’s first term.
It is unclear what Dr. Fauci will do next, though he told The New York Times he would “devote himself to traveling, writing and encouraging young people to enter government service.”
Though beloved by the current administration and many scientists, Dr. Fauci’s reputation with a swath of the country is probably permanently damaged.
The central issue was that Dr. Fauci “lacked an understanding of behavioral science at a time when it would have benefited us most,” said Paul Mango, a top official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration, referring to the early days of COVID-19 pandemic. “The success or failure of our COVID response rested on modifying Americans’ behaviors and Dr. Fauci clearly lost the trust of 50% of the American people and therefore lost influence and the ability to change behaviors.”
Mr. Mango said Dr. Fauci is a dedicated public servant and accomplished immunologist who steered the country through the AIDS crisis and Ebola, though he was a bit of an anachronism.
“He comes from an era when there was asymmetric information favoring the doctor or scientist over the average citizen,” Mr. Mango said. “In today’s social media-dominated society, the average citizen has access to information nearly immediately at the ground level of society, and in the case of COVID, that information proved to be much more accurate than what was distilled up to Dr. Fauci.”
Even before COVID-19, Dr. Fauci was no stranger to controversy.
In the 1980s, Dr. Fauci was a frequent target of Larry Kramer, a prominent AIDS activist who accused Dr. Fauci of being too inexperienced and refusing to hear the cries of infected patients. They later became friends, as Dr. Fauci won over more of the AIDS community through his research on treatment.
In his statement, Dr. Fauci recounted the many twists and turns of his tenure, which stretched over seven presidents.
Beyond HIV/AIDS, Dr. Fauci said there was “the West Nile virus, the anthrax attacks, pandemic influenza, various bird influenza threats, Ebola and Zika, among others, and, of course, most recently the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Dr. Fauci is known as a personable figure who took care of patients himself — despite his lofty title — and found ways to destigmatize individuals afflicted by diseases. For instance, he famously hugged Dallas nurse Nina Pham in front of the cameras after her recovery from Ebola, a virus she contracted from a Liberian who showed up in Texas.
“Whether you’ve met him personally or not, he has touched all Americans’ lives with his work,” Mr. Biden said. “I extend my deepest thanks for his public service. The United States of America is stronger, more resilient, and healthier because of him.”
Mr. Biden said he worked closely with Dr. Fauci as vice president during the Ebola and Zika crises, in particular, before contacting Dr. Fauci as one of his first calls as president-elect in the depths of the pandemic.
Dr. Fauci said he will use the coming months to help NIH select a new director at NIAID — something it hasn’t had to worry about for nearly 40 years.
“Over the coming months, I will continue to put my full effort, passion and commitment into my current responsibilities, as well as help prepare the Institute for a leadership transition,” Dr. Fauci said. “NIH is served by some of the most talented scientists in the world, and I have no doubt that I am leaving this work in very capable hands.”
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