In a candid exit interview, the NIAID head reflects on the seven presidents he served, controversial decisions, and feuding with Rand Paul
BY JON COHEN
In 1984, when Anthony Fauci took over as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), his wife gave him a plant for the new office. Both the palm and the 81-year-old physician are still there, the giant plant now crowding the office of one of the most celebrated—and polarizing—scientific figures in U.S. history. But not for much longer. Fauci announced on 22 August that he would step down at the end of the year from both NIAID and his post as the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden.
“What am I going to do with this plant? It’s a monster. I can’t fit it in any other place,” he joked this week from his NIAID office to Science’s senior correspondent Jon Cohen, who has conducted many candid interviews with the institute chief, starting more than 30 years ago with the emergence of an earlier pandemic, AIDS.
For many people in the United States, Fauci became the public figure trusted above all others to guide them through COVID-19. The hero worship was evident in Fauci bobbleheads, “In Fauci We Trust” yard signs, and baseball cards that feature him throwing out a first pitch. But many others—including former President Donald Trump and some of his top advisers—turned on Fauci. They saw his advice as inconsistent and misleading, and portrayed him as a threat to the social order, the economy, and the health of the public. In this alternative world, the yard signs say “Fauci for Prison,” T-shirts declare “Even My Dog Hates Fauci,” and ballcaps call him a fraud or worse. He and his family have faced death threats, and his house has had a Secret Service detail stationed outside for protection.
In a 2021 webcast interview at the annual meeting of AAAS (the publisher of Science), Fauci said he wouldn’t retire until there were vaccines for HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis (TB). In his interview with Science this week, Fauci explained his change of mind, acknowledged some missteps during the pandemic, and discussed what he might do next. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What triggered your decision to leave at the end of this year? You had a much longer range view when we spoke in February 2021 for the AAAS meeting, and then you later said you would retire at the end of Biden’s first term.
A: No, no, I never said that I would retire at the end of Biden’s first term. Please go back and look at my words. Somebody asked me on television, If Donald Trump was the next president, would you stay and work with him? And I said, it doesn’t matter if he’s the next president or if there’s another Republican or even if Joe Biden has a second term. I don’t plan to be here at the end of the day.
I walked onto the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus as a 27-year-old guy who just finished his medical residency at the New York hospital, and it’s 6 decades years later. I’ve accumulated an unprecedented amount of experience. One of the things I had wanted to do deep down was to be here at the end of the discovery of an HIV vaccine. And this is the truth–and I’m telling you and I haven’t told anybody—I said, you know, we’re not going to get an HIV vaccine for another decade at least. I was joking when I said malaria and TB.