It felt like the end of an era on Monday when Anthony Fauci announced the would leave his long-standing position as head of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and associated leadership positions in the Biden administration. The physician-scientist and public health luminary whose extensive career spans decades, guided seven different presidential administrations on the best ways to tackle emerging infectious disease threats ranging from HIV to coronavirus. He also became the ultimate vessel for Americans’ hopes for — and mistrust of — the scientific establishment during the once-in-a-century COVID pandemic. Fauci has interpreted his departure not as a retirement, but as a way for him to move on to the next stage of an already illustrious career.
But celebrities in science are prone to the same celebrity dissatisfaction and nuances in almost everything. From politics to the ability to communicate with the public when they are most anxious, skeptical, or both, a doctor who serves in the federal government — and leads a public health campaign that can only be successful with maximum public support — is an open target for both admiration and criticism. And Fauci amassed both in spades, like so many medical leaders before him trying to get people to act on the basis of scientific evidence and despite their ingrained political bias.
In the early days of the COVID vaccine campaign in late 2020 and through 2021, COVID shots were often referred to as the “Fauci ouchie,” as Grammy-winning children’s musician Joanie Leeds emphasized in a catchy nursery rhyme earlier this year when the vaccine was approved for use in younger children. Fauci himself appeared on PBS’s Sesame Street until inform Elmo and company that he had personal traveled to the North Pole to vaccinate Santa against COVID over the holiday season of 2020 – so rest assured, merry old St. Nick was still able to deliver presents after a year of lockdown. He may be the only scientific government official (or really any government official) to be played by Brad Pittin tribute to Fauci’s leadership and ability to communicate the nature of the coronavirus threat to a fearful nation, on an SNL episode set in the earliest days of the pandemic.
Public health requires public conviction, public knowledge and public involvement. And the politicization of the COVID response, with a sharp chasm that cuts through ideological grounds and manifested in the immunization gap in red and blue states, also made Fauci a veritable bogeyman of government oversight and Big Pharma-fueled nefarious intent. A cursory look at “Fauci” related products on Etsy reveals this gap, with “Saint” Fauci prayer candles next door for sale monstrous caricatures of him splashed on T-shirts demand the masses: “Obey”, in a consumer version of the storylines popularized by conservative media organizations such as Fox news.
But Fauci’s divisive legacy is really nothing new in the infectious disease world. When the germ theory itself – the literal substantiation that organisms that can spread through the air or by touch with the naked eye – was proposed by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s, it was regarded by the followers of alternative medicine and scientific Contrarianism as a quack considered. Hundreds of years later, that pseudoscience still has a hold on society and is direct fuel for the anti-vaxxer movement, and by extension a source of consternation for the likes of Fauci. A prominent denial of germ theory Facebook group formed in April 2020, and marked by Ars Technicablown up by a handful of members to over 26,000 today.
If there is a lesson, it could be this: Using science for practical and social purposes requires a kind of engagement with the public that is inherently political. And those who become the face of such moves are opening themselves to the double-edged sword of public scrutiny. Anthony Fauci certainly did.
Sy Mukherjee has been reporting on healthcare for ten years. He is a consultant and communication architect at IDEA Pharma.