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Experts: Dr. Fauci’s record is stellar, sidelining him would be a mistake

President Trump watched Dr. Anthony Fauci speak at an April White House briefing.
President Trump watched Dr. Anthony Fauci speak at an April White House briefing.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Experts in Boston’s medical and public health community say Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, has a sterling reputation, and expressed faith in his work even as the White House appears to be trying to undercut his standing.

“In the infectious disease community, his reputation has always been stellar,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious diseases specialist. “He has been a beacon for scientific thinking and evidence-based response to public health emergencies.”

An attempt to sideline Fauci could be “really damaging in our ability to control this pandemic,” said Bhadelia, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center.

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President Trump’s advisers over the weekend anonymously provided details to various news outlets about statements Fauci had made early in the coronavirus outbreak that they said were inaccurate. The extraordinary move was akin to treating Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as if he were Trump’s political rival. The controversial, divisive Republican president had also openly criticized Fauci last week, saying, “Fauci is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes.”

With the United States leading the world by a large margin in both cases and deaths, Fauci has grown more outspoken recently in interviews with his concerns about the virus, even as Trump has tried to push for states to reopen faster and has threatened to withhold federal money from school districts if they do not reopen in the fall.

Polls have shown the American public trusts Fauci’s advice over Trump’s when it comes to the pandemic.

Fauci, 79, has long had an excellent reputation. He is known for his work on the HIV/AIDS crisis and, more recently, the Ebola outbreak of 2014. President George H.W. Bush once cited him as an unsung American hero, and President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2008. The citation noted his “efforts to advance our understanding and treatment of HIV/AIDS” that had " brought hope and healing to tens of millions in both developed and developing nations.”

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Bhadelia said the White House has already limited access to public health experts and that has contributed to confusion about what Americans need to do to stop the pandemic.

“When you have a rapidly evolving crisis, you need more access, not less, to public health leaders,” she said.

She also said the White House has appeared to be sowing distrust of public health experts, which raises the possibility that people won’t follow crucial guidance, refusing to don masks or avoiding vaccines, for example.

“If you create distrust in public health leaders ... you’re not then going to have the public follow those recommendations,” she said.

“Keeping public health leaders out of the pandemic response is basically like leaving the surgeons out of the operating room when you have a heart surgery going on. This is what the administration’s doing,” she said.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Program in Global Public Health & Common Good at Boston College, said he had known Fauci for years.

“I’ve just always thought he was top of the line,” he said. “He’s just always been a go-to person for expertise in infectious diseases.”

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“At the end of the day, he’s a good man. He’s honest. He tells the truth,” Landrigan said.

If the White House ignores science and ignores public health experts, Landrigan said, “I think it’s very worrisome. It would be like flying an airplane without radar.”

Both Bhadelia and Landrigan said they didn’t fault Fauci for statements early on in the pandemic that the White House aides criticized. Fauci, among other things, said earlier that people shouldn’t wear masks, but he now strongly recommends it. He also, at one point, minimized the importance of asymptomatic spread, which is now believed to be a major factor in the pandemic.

“This is unfortunately how it goes,” in the middle of a pandemic, Bhadelia said. “Nobody likes it, but science evolves.”

“We have to change public policy as science evolves, and that’s a good thing. We don’t want to stick with recommendations that are based on outdated knowledge,” she said.

Landrigan said, “I think it’s fair to say that most of us in medicine didn’t know anywhere near as much about this virus back then [earlier this year] as we know today. This was a brand-new virus. It came out of Central China. We never had any experience with it. Our thinking has evolved as the epidemic has progressed.”

He said it was “not a very meaningful criticism” to go back and criticize Fauci in hindsight.

“I’m sure he acted on the best information he had at the time. As the information has filled in, as more information has become known to us, we’ve evolved. That’s what scientists do,” Landrigan said.

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Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in an e-mail that he had worked closely with Fauci for many years when Kuritzkes was directing the NIAID-funded AIDS Clinical Trials Group.

“Dr. Fauci is a man of impeccable scientific integrity, whose medical and scientific opinions and advice are always driven by the best data available at the time. It should come as no surprise to anyone that as new information accumulated about a previously unknown virus causing a novel disease in human populations, early assumptions need to be changed or refined,” Kuritzkes said.

“This process is called learning, and it is what the entire infectious diseases community has done since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. I have no doubt that Dr. Fauci is committed wholeheartedly to the health and well-being of the American people, and indeed people throughout the world,” he said.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said in a tweet that the White House critique is that “early on in the pandemic, Tony sometimes got things wrong.”

“True,” Jha said, “His track record isn’t perfect. Its just better than anyone else I know.”

He said that sidelining Fauci “makes the federal response worse” and the American people will suffer as a result.

“If we cannot trust Fauci for the #COVID19 science, evidence and facts, then who can we trust?,” tweeted Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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Fauci also received support Monday from leaders of the Association of American Medical Colleges, who issued a statement saying that the group was “extremely concerned and alarmed by efforts to discredit” Fauci, “an independent and outspoken voice for truth as the nation has struggled to fight the coronavirus pandemic.”

“As we are seeing from the surge in COVID-19 cases in areas that have reopened, science and facts—not wishful thinking or politics—must guide America’s response to this pandemic. This does not mean that scientific knowledge and recommendations will not change as our understanding of the virus grows. To the contrary, a successful response depends on Dr. Fauci, his colleagues, and scientists throughout America’s system of medical research who are able to draw conclusions based on current observations and continuously adjust those conclusions based on continuing observations. Science is, and must be, a dynamic and evolving process,” the statement said.

“Taking quotes from Dr. Fauci out of context to discredit his scientific knowledge and judgment will do tremendous harm to our nation’s efforts to get the virus under control, restore our economy, and return us to a more normal way of life,” the statement said.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.



Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com