When Anthony Fauci, MD, was called to help lead the country’s COVID-19 response in January 2020 as part of the White House’s coronavirus task force, it was far from his first time around with a health crisis involving a deadly virus. As the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Fauci, who joined President Joe Biden’s administration as the chief medical adviser, has overseen efforts to rein in HIV, Ebola, and Zika. Still, he says he’s never seen anything quite like the new coronavirus.
“HIV evolved insidiously, and not for a very long period of time did people fully appreciate how serious it was and what the extent of it was,” he says. Though the magnitude of HIV was enormous -- nearly 33 million people globally have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the epidemic started in 1981 -- the speed of COVID-19 has been extraordinary. “You have a brand new virus that evolved in December of 2019, was identified in January of 2020, and then literally, within less than a year, has exploded upon the planet to be the most challenging and devastating pandemic of a respiratory-borne infection in 102 years.”
For years, Fauci has worried -- and warned -- about the possibility of a virus jumping from animal to human and spreading easily from person to person, causing millions of deaths. He’s called it his “worst nightmare.” “Now I’m living through what I had described,” he says. “I was hoping that we would never have such an outbreak, but unfortunately for us, we do have it.”
The effort to control the pandemic and minimize the number of lives lost keeps Fauci up at night and working 18-hour days. That the outbreak hit right in the middle of a divisive election year only added to the difficulty of containing it. “It is stunning when you have more than [500,000 people as of early March 2021] who have died and people are saying it’s not real. It’s a hoax. It’s very difficult to get your arms around that,” he says.
As unimaginably dark as the pandemic has been, there have also been bright spots. Three vaccines have been developed, approved, and rolled out and into millions of arms within a matter of months, an effort that would have previously taken 7 to 10 years. “If there’s anything we should be very proud of, it’s how the scientific community responded,” Fauci says.
He adds that the combination of a vaccine and widespread adherence to public health measures such as mask wearing and social distancing will finally “end the outbreak as we know it.” Yet the possibility of another pandemic looms large on the horizon. “We will continue to have outbreaks of new infectious diseases. ... The trick is, how do we respond to them?” he says. “The better prepared we are to address a pandemic, the less likelihood that we will get an outbreak of the magnitude that we’re seeing now.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted
Dr. Anthony Fauci as saying more than 500 million people have died. It should have said more than 500,000 people.
WebMD Exclusive: Our 2021 Health Hero Gets Personal
Who is your hero?
I have a group of heroes: the health care providers who every single day get up and go to work and put themselves at risk to take care of desperately ill people.
If you could do anything to help others, what would you do?
I would have a health care system that allows for equitable, quality health care for everyone.
What is your dream job?
Exactly what I’m doing right now.
What do you do to relax?
I don’t relax that much, but the one thing I do consistently is get in a power walk of about 4 miles with my wife on as many days per week as possible.
PUBLISHED ON JULY 17, 2020
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