Dr. Anthony Fauci (M.D. ’66), adviser to seven presidents, including chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is also an alumnus of Weill Cornell Medicine who trained and was chief resident at what is now NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. This year, he is the Ralph L. Nachman Visiting Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine. In February, he met online with Dr. Jay Varma, director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response and professor of population health sciences, to reflect upon Dr. Fauci’s career, the future of public health, and the rewards of public service.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Dr. Varma: A number of people have made the argument that we’re now living in a new age of pandemics. I’m curious whether you agree, and what that idea means to you.
Dr. Fauci: If you look at the history of new, emerging microbes, about 75% — at least — have jumped from an animal host to a human. That gets amplified by not only the continual encroachment on animal and environmental settings, but also climate change, as well as the increase in international travel. And so, the short answer is we are indeed in an age of pandemics. If we are prepared enough, we are in an age of outbreaks and disease emergences. It’s up to all of us in public health to make sure those emergences don’t turn into pandemics.
Dr. Varma: There’s a phrase that [epidemiologist] Larry Brilliant used: “Outbreaks are inevitable, but epidemics are optional.” There’s what individuals themselves can do, and then there’s what societies can do. I want to start with the first piece, which has been really highlighted during COVID. Inevitably, people are going to feel constrained or oppressed by having to modify their behavior or other precautions. What are your thoughts about how individuals can best adapt to this riskier world?
Dr. Fauci: We have in this country a profound degree of divisiveness that has been percolating for years, that has culminated and been amplified during the last administration, and is now a situation where it is almost that you can’t talk to each other anymore, which is really, really dangerous. We have a common enemy, which is the virus, and if ever there was a situation where you wanted people of different persuasions and different ideologies to work together, it’s when you’re fighting a common enemy.
The trouble is, individuals on either side of these ideological differences are interpreting rather simple, understandable public health principles in an entirely different manner [than they are intended]. I don’t have a simple answer to how we’re going to get around that, except that hopefully we can get people to understand when you look at the toll that this outbreak has [taken] — 1.1 million [dead in the United States] and counting — sooner or later I believe that the better angels in most everyone will prevail and society as a whole will realize the need to work together against this common enemy.