I love science-fiction series like “The Man in the High Castle” because they force us to question our ingrained assumption that history was always ordained to turn out as it did. It was set in 1950’s America after the Allies lost World War II. Germany had beaten us to The Bomb, vaporized Washington and stormed ashore at Virginia Beach. Berlin and Tokyo had divided the U.S. between them. Most Americans were cowed but prospering under the new regime. The few resisters were holed up in the Rockies fighting a losing guerilla war.
I kept thinking of that series as I read David Wallace-Wells’ interview with Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, which is destined for this Sunday’s New York Times magazine. It is amazing how the certainty with which we look back on even recent history so quickly erases our memories of how much confusion and fear reigned at the time. Of course the Normandy Invasion would succeed. Of course the bomb dropped on Hiroshima would not be a dud. Of course we won, and Eisenhower, architect of Normandy, would go on to be President — instead of being hanged at the Nazis’ equivalent of Nuremberg.
My father was at Normandy and I read history. In 1944, those outcomes were not so clear.
What Mr. Wallace-Wells did was adopt the sneaky suspicion of the MAGA crowd that the scientific elite (liberals, they assumed) somehow knew or should have known how things would turn out: whether masks would work, whether lockdowns or school closures made sense, whether vaccines would pan out, how much herd immunity would develop, whether there would be breakthrough infections, how the virus would mutate, even how many Americans would die.
The truth is that many of the early guesses made by science proved wrong. When the data changed, good scientists changed their advice. But, like the MAGAmites, Mr. Wallace-Wells makes Dr. Fauci personify all science and treats him as if he knew the truth but concealed it for political ends. “I’m not trying to prosecute you” he says soothingly, but it’s just a less foamy-mouthed version of Rand Paul or Jim Jordan asking: “Some people say you lied, Dr. Fauci. Your response?”
That’s unfair. This time it was me that was there, not my dad. That’s not how it happened.
The whole interview showed Fauci on the defensive, trying to correct Mr. Wallace-Wells’ rewriting of history. To me, his most telling answer was: “David, we’re playing a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking here. This is some really serious Monday-morning quarterbacking.”
For perspective: On May 24, 2020, The New York Times movingly devoted its whole front page to the names of 100,000 dead. Can you imagine we would have done that if we’d known that we were less than 10 percent of the way to the top of a mountain of 1.1 million dead? 100,000 seemed horrific; in retrospect, it was just the first inning. Should we have known?
The pandemic was a whorling protoplasmic cyclone that lasted years longer than expected. Its outcome was unknowable from the start. Our response was mostly not science-based, but an ugly national bar fight. Now the ghouls are wandering the field, shooting and stripping the wounded.
I presume that Mr. Wallace-Wells is not a MAGAmite. But in his intro, even before his questions begin, he rewrites history from that perspective: Fauci dismissed the threat as “minuscule.” Fauci opposed masks. Fauci played down aerosol spread. Even the opening line is unfair: “It was, perhaps, an impossible job. Make one man the face of public health amid an unprecedented pandemic….”
Fauci was never the lone face. Hundreds of experts, in and out of government, were interviewed. I interviewed dozens of them myself. Some were on TV often: Scott Gottlieb, Peter Hotez, Leana Wen, Paul Offit and Bill Schaffner instantly come to mind. There was no shortage of expert opinion, and they did not always agree. And the side with the alternative facts had its own experts, who also got airtime: Dr. Scott Atlas with his bizarre theories of T-cell immunity from benign coronaviruses (900,000 deaths occurred after his assurances that the epidemic was fading away), the Great Barrington bunch, Dr. Didier Raoult and the defenders of chloroquine and ivermectin, Dr. Demon Sperm and the other Frontline Doctors, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the rest of the Disinformation Dozen. They too were interviewed and lionized.
Nor was Fauci “made” the face of public health. He became it by default because studies are boring and it’s more fun to personalize it, to pit St. Anthony against Fire Fauci, the way you’d pick Team Jen or Team Angelina, whether what’s at stake is a million lives or a few years with Brad Pitt. Also, our other public health generals were cowering in silence. (More on that below.)
The Q&A itself expands on the “blame Fauci for everything” theme. Fauci didn’t intuit that there was asymptomatic spread even though China and the WHO initially said there wasn’t. It’s Fauci’s fault that Zoom-schooled students lost years of math proficiency. Fauci didn’t tell seniors often enough that they were in danger. Fauci set us up for high death rates in red states. Fauci infected black Americans with vaccine hesitancy. Fauci failed to force Congress to pass paid sick leave. Fauci neglected to face down the NYPD and cancel the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and shut down New York in February because…oh, yeah — Fauci wasn’t the mayor and he’s in Bethesda. Fauci funded lethal research in China that caused the lab leak that may or may not have happened.
There is no question that we, as a nation, did terribly against Covid-19. Even though we are the world’s richest country, invented both of the best vaccines and had first dibs on them, we did worse than any of our wealthy peers — much worse than we should have. It’s in the data.
As Mr. Wallace-Wells shows in his footnotes, the easiest thumbnail measure of that is Covid deaths per million population.* Peru, Bulgaria and Hungary did the worst, with 6,500 to 5,000 per million, respectively. (Peru had many problems, but its worst was that it ran out of oxygen. Most eastern European countries did poorly because of corruption, broken health systems and distrust of government. They live now in the world we’d live in if “Man in the High Castle” were set in 2028 and President for Life Trump was beginning his fourth term.)
The U.S. is 15th worst on the list, with almost 3,500 dead per million. (Roughly tied with Slovenia, Mrs. Trump’s homeland.) Britain is 21st, with 3,240. Germany is 56th, with 2,058. Canada is 83rd, with 1,360, roughly tied with Israel at 1,338.
In my opinion, if we’d had better leadership, we would have fallen somewhere between Germany and Canada. Germany got hit hard earlier than we did, Canada later. They’re both roughly our peers in per capita wealth and expertise, both are democratic, both have their own MAGA-style movements. (Someone was shot dead over a mask in Germany and Canada had a major trucker strike over vaccines.)
Sweden, which many scientists favored by the right initially suggested we should imitate, did much worse than all its Nordic peers.
The countries that did really well, by contrast, with less than 800 dead per million, are mostly in Asia, even though they were hit first by travelers from Wuhan: Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam. What advantages did they have? Harsh initial lockdowns with no home quarantine. Tight borders with visitors held in hotels for two weeks. Universal masking. Plenty of tests from the git-go. Rigid contact-tracing. Unlike us, they went through SARS two decades ago and they knew the threat was real. Then, later, they had widespread acceptance of vaccines. (Non-Asian Australia and New Zealand also did well with similar tactics.) I’m ignoring India, Indonesia and most of Africa because their data are shaky. China didn’t even pretend to issue honest data when it ended its Zero Covid policy in December, but even if it had 1.6 million dead in January (the highest estimate, and I doubt they reached it) it still did far better than we did because they have triple our population.
Meanwhile, the American “lockdowns” that provoked such anger here were a joke, a garden party. Not just by China’s standards — even by Italy’s. The virus was inside the walls by January 15. We travelled freely around cities and between states. We overcautiously closed beaches but we also held country-wide motorcycle rallies. We had almost no tests until mid-March and no easy-test regimen (walk-in clinics, sidewalk tents) until 2021. Quarantine was done at home on the “Scout’s-honor-wink-wink” system. Our level of vaccine acceptance is still appallingly low.
So whose fault was it that we did so badly? I think I know the answer, but let’s skip that. I don’t want to fall into the trap of blaming it all on one man. We were a divided society.
A central fallacy in MAGA-think is that Fauci was in charge. That’s absurd. He isn’t actually in charge of anything except doling out NIH grants for infectious diseases. Do we revile his co-equal, the director of the National Cancer Institute, another N.I.H. division, for our losses in the war on cancer? Can you even name the head of the National Cancer Institute?
The real problem with our battles against disease is that no one is in charge. We can all name the generals who led almost every war we’ve fought: Washington, Grant, Pershing, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Westmoreland, Abrams, Schwarzkopf, Petraeus, and so on. Can you name who won or lost the war against the Spanish flu? Against polio? (Not the vaccine makers Salk and Sabin. I mean the generals.) We can’t because we have no Pentagon for disease. No one is in overall charge. War is a public calling, but American medicine is a privatized mess. When we need a huge effort for the public good from it, we can’t muster it. In fact, we get the opposite — hospitals hoard ventilators and make it hard for their staffs to go where the outbreaks are. We have a patchwork of agencies with very defined, very limited purviews: the CDC, the FDA, the NIH. Even the CDC has a small staff whose job is mostly to investigate outbreaks and make recommendations to local health departments and local hospitals. Imagine the FBI, cut to a third of its size, with no guns, handcuffs or powers of arrest, plus an inclination to publish scholarly papers instead of busting heads. That’s the CDC.
So what was Fauci? Basically a behind-the-scenes White House advisor and an affable talking head. Early on, Mr. Trump took over the daily coronavirus press conferences and spouted dangerous nonsense from the podium. It was just another flu. It would disappear like magic. Fifteen days would stop the spread. There were plenty of tests. You should inject yourself with bleach or swallow an ultraviolet light. Convalescent plasma was a miracle cure. Or hydroxy-whatchamacallit was. When reporters doubted him, he shut them up and dismissed them as fake news. Our other generals were mute. Dr. Robert Redfield gazed lovingly up at the President like a besotted puppy. Dr. Deborah Birx blinked at him and the floor in silent horror.
Fauci was the only one who would contradict the drivel. Not comfortably, as he described in an interview right after Mr. Trump left office, in which he said his role became “the skunk at the picnic.” So he was attacked. Not for being wrong, but for politely correcting someone who fancied himself a genius and whose followers fancied him a god.
Everyone made early mistakes. Before the pandemic, studies on masks were rare and iffy. The two I knew of were from Canada’s McMaster University. The first, done on a mere 43 nurses in Toronto hospitals during SARS, found that nurses who wore masks in rooms with infected patients did better than nurses who didn’t. The second, done on 448 nurses during the 2008–09 flu season, concluded that inexpensive surgical masks were neither better nor worse than N95s.
I share some blame. In early interviews on The Daily, Michael Barbaro asked me to describe what I did to protect myself. I said I wore one glove on the subway; no mention of a mask. Later I washed my groceries with bleach. That was the science then. Everyone knew the virus was “airborne,” the question was: big droplet or tiny aerosol particle? Early data from China said droplet and almost no asymptomatic cases. Was China lying? No — it was in chaos. It also had few tests; at first, it found the sick only when they came to hospitals. China also said 80 percent of cases were “mild.” I repeated that. It was reassuring but terribly misleading. That study defined “mild” as everything from cold symptoms to pneumonia but not yet hospitalized on oxygen. In other words, you were either “mild” or fighting for your life. I corrected myself on the Daily — but a month later, the next time I was interviewed. Had I “lied”? No, I’d read the study. I just hadn’t described its fine print carefully enough.
Especially irritating to me is that Mr. Wallace-Wells cites an article of mine as evidence that Fauci lied. It’s one I did when I noticed in late 2020 that Fauci’s estimates of how much herd immunity it would take to stop the virus were changing.
That article became a favorite among the MAGAmites. Even when I have explained why it is not evidence of lying, otherwise intelligent people on the right, like Bret Stephens, keep insisting it is. I’ll try again.
First: believe me, if I thought I’d caught Fauci lying, I would have said so. I try to be a nice guy, but like any news jackal, I like being on the front page. Fauci caught in a deliberate whopper would have been a headline.
(Quick aside: I did not contact Dr. Fauci for this article. I have not spoken to him for months. We talked occasionally for decades but we only met in person two or three times. I do like him and admire how indefatigable and humane he was in fighting AIDS and other diseases, and he’s never told me anything I found to be untruthful. But I always regarded him as a source, knowing that reporters are sometimes forced to, however reluctantly, stab their sources. He certainly was always aware I was a reporter.)
Second: The question Fauci had been asked was never, “What level of herd immunity is needed to stop this virus?” He was being beseeched by plaintive TV anchors and even the actress Jennifer Garner: “Dr. Fauci, when it all be over? When will life be back to normal? When can we go to the theater again? By spring? By summer?”
Third: Fauci never answers a question briefly. He never says just “Yes” or “No” or “by Easter.” Or “the risk is minuscule.” Or “masks don’t work” or many of the other things he is accused of having said. You can paraphrase one of his 500-word answers and just put quotes around the word “minuscule.” But I guarantee you, that’s a misrepresentation of what he actually said. He offers caveats, he adds subordinate clauses, he notes exceptions. He dumps context over your head like Gatorade, until you stop him and say: “Tony, please. I need one sentence. Can we do that?” And even then, you get 450 words.
Also, he thinks out loud as he answers, and you have to know enough about the subject to follow where he’s going — including some of the things he would have said but didn’t bother saying because he assumes you know.
(Also, like any Brooklyn boy, he swears like a sailor. He can turn it off for TV, and I had to edit it out for The Times, but that’s another side the public doesn’t see.)
Over the course of the year 2020, as anchors asked when it would end, he would try to show why there was no pat answer by doing his math aloud for them: “Well, if you assume this number of shots can be rolled out by this date, and they are 95 percent effective, and you assume everyone will take them, and you assume it takes 60–70 percent herd immunity to stop transmission, then maybe by sometime in the summer, but it all depends on….”
What I noticed in listening to repeated interviews was that his immunity figure was slowly shifting upwards, from “60 to 70 percent” to “75 to 80 percent” and then to “80-plus percent.” That dull-sounding figure is actually a very important data point in fighting an epidemic, and all experts had conflicting estimates then, so I called him to ask what was up.
What was changing was not his intentions, but the virus. We didn’t then yet have enough genomic testing to prove it, but it was rapidly becoming more transmissible — the Wuhan variant became the European one, became Alpha, became Delta. The more infectious the virus, the higher herd immunity must be before Rt drops below 1 and the pandemic slows down.
We talked about that — transmissibility was clearly going up, so he was changing his calculations. Unfortunately, I described that with a football metaphor, “shifting the goal posts.” He was moving the goal —a return to normality — backward in time. But that expression also implies deceit, which was not what I meant. My error.
We also talked about another reality: the shifting math on vaccine acceptance. At the pandemic’s outset, scientists assumed that, if a vaccine or cure had magically been available, everyone would line up to get it. Then, by summer of 2020, polls showed that the anti-vax industry had spread plenty of fear: half of all Americans were afraid of the new mRNA technology, especially if it was only as good as a flu shot. Then by late fall, as trial data showed how amazing the vaccines were — 95 percent efficacy, almost zero side effects — that needle moved back.
When they have options, public health officials tend to project optimism. If you say something is impossible, people give up, and it doesn’t happen — when it could have. People in the business of saving lives tend not to be Eeyores — they focus on what they think is doable with encouragement.
So he said “When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent. Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.”
Yes, he said that. And his opponents scream: “See? Fauci lied!” They claimed he did it to justify keeping the country in lockdown and masks indefinitely — as if that was ever anyone’s goal.
But that’s a ridiculous misreading. He was making guesses at what month the end would arrive based on numerous moving targets — virus transmissibility, vaccine efficacy, vaccine acceptance, etc. It was becoming abundantly clear to him — and to me and to everyone else watching the data closely — that Covid was not going to peter out when 60 percent of the population was vaccinated or recovered, the original WHO estimate. It might have to be above 80 percent. If some of the population resisted vaccine, you had to nudge your timeline back or forward. THAT is what he was trying to explain. Not that he had come up with a devious way to lock America in medical jail. But the way he phrased it and the “nudge” part I quoted made it sound like deception when it was really just estimation.
In 1984, when the virus that caused AIDS was discovered, the late Margaret Heckler, Secretary of Health and Human Services, declared that a vaccine would be ready for testing within two years. Thus far she’s off by 37 years and counting. But no one screams, “Heckler lied!” They say: “Well, that was overly optimistic….”
That’s just one example of how Mr. Wallace-Wells demanded Fauci defend saying things he really didn’t say. Yes, he said the risk was “minuscule” in a USA Today interview on February 17, 2020. But he clearly meant that it was minuscule in comparison to the risk, at that moment, from flu. We forget that the 2019–20 flu season was a bad one. Believe me, Fauci was very worried about Covid at the time. I interviewed him on January 31, catching him just as he was entering the White House to warn them that the virus, which was widespread in Wuhan but had popped up only sporadically elsewhere, was unstoppable. “It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” he told me. “But will it be catastrophic? I don’t know.”
(In that USA Today interview, he was also asked if packages from China, Chinese restaurants and even Chinese people should be avoided. We sometimes erase from our memories how much our first pandemic fears were driven by racism — even in those early days when Mr. Trump was still praising China and defending Xi Jinping’s leadership.)
Yes, Fauci and many other scientists initially said that we should not buy masks. But there was then a severe shortage in hospitals, profiteers were hoarding them, and, as I said, the few existing studies suggested using them only on sick people. (Still a good idea. If you have only one mask, put it on the sick person — masks are better at keeping virus in than keeping it out. But a sick person won’t wear a mask if no one else does because it’s a leper’s bell. Everyone must mask to create psychological permission for the sick to do so.) When more studies were done, the data changed. It became clear that masks definitely work if people actually wear them. Dr. Fauci and others changed their advice. But realistically, it was already too late: in non-authoritarian countries, people only consistently wear them in the early days when fear is high.
(Over time, the data has changed on the efficacy of many cures: mustard plasters, cupping, sucking rattlesnake venom, drinking hot toddies, prayer and tossing virgins into volcanoes. When the data change, good scientists change their advice. I have a book about pandemics coming out in January, and several chapters are about the roles that crowd psychology, rumors, denialism, fatalism, authoritarianism, racism and other political forces play in epidemics. Getting those right is sometimes more important — and often harder — than merely getting the science right.)
Mr. Wallace-Wells blundered through other issues Fauci was attacked for, including whether his institute gave money to a Wuhan institute that was later accused of leaking the virus. There is so much to say on these topics that it would take pages, but Mr. Wallace-Wells seemed to be trying to fudge his way past not knowing some important facts, like exactly what “gain of function” research entails, how serial passaging works, what finding two lineages in the market implies and exactly when the first case in Wuhan was detected. Instead, he asked a slightly cleaned-up version of a question Rand Paul might ask: “Dr. Fauci, how do you sleep at night knowing that you maybe started the pandemic?” Since no one has yet proved that the virus did escape from the lab that got a smallish N.I.H. grant, nor that the funded work could have produced the virus, Fauci was able to dismiss that one with “I sleep fine” and go on to make strong points: You can’t make vaccines or cures without handling live virus, and most major labs and vaccine companies do that. He argued, to Mr. Wallace-Wells’ apparent dismay, that either a lab leak or a zoonotic leap would be a grave human error: butchering wild animals in urban markets is a bad idea. You cannot ban all dangerous research, and you must fund some of it —but only for vaccines and cures, not for giggles and Nobels.
We don’t know if the Wuhan Institute leaked. More and more evidence points to the market source. But we know for sure that Beijing is not revealing everything it knows. That’s bad. But it’s not Fauci’s fault.
Let me say this bluntly: supporting the bat research done by EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the right thing to do. Bat viruses, like bird viruses, are very dangerous. Not hunting for them is like not having satellites and radar detect missile launches from North Korea or Russia. We support such research everywhere from California to Congo. Is it dangerous? Yes. Should biosafety protocols be high? Yes. Is working in China problematic? Yes. But it’s where the bats, birds and mixing vessels like civets, raccoon dogs and pigs are. Many pandemics, from the Asian flu of 1957 to the Hong Kong flu of 1968 to Covid, started in China. So, possibly, did the 1918 flu and the Black Death. Should we be helping China do better? Yes, and we have, from John D. Rockefeller to many of China’s top scientists studying here. On this issue, for all our sakes, we need partnership, not enmity, just as we cooperated with the Soviets on smallpox and polio despite the Cold War.
So what did Fauci do wrong? Tried to help, maybe too much. Told the truth in an era when lying was normalized. (Nudging a timeline is not the equivalent of attempting a coup.) Personally, I thought he gave too many TV interviews, which sapped the awe he was once held in. And maybe the shades by the pool and the first pitch at the Nationals game hurt him later, but I’m nobody’s media advisor. They were bits of innocent fun during a terrifying year. (And, no, he didn’t make those bobblehead dolls. The guy who made the first called me to ask for Fauci’s email so he could seek permission.)
During that first year, as the barely restrained spread that ultimately caused the huge post-election waves of death was taking place, it was important to have one government scientist telling the truth. (Yes, Mr. Wallace-Wells, on the day Biden won, there were only 250,000 dead. That doesn’t make all the rest his fault.) Once Biden took office, the weekly briefings were all held by scientists. They became dull. We tuned out. With each 100,000 deaths, we became number. We all became experts and got lost in arcana: N95s vs. KN94s, Pfizer boosters vs. Modernas, PCRs vs. rapid tests, Regeneron vs. Paxlovid vs. tough it out. Our early memories of how confusing and scary 2020 was faded.
Only the grudges were unforgotten. The false narratives welled up, then were repeated, then were absorbed, and now are being chiseled in stone. This, in my opinion, is one.
*I used worldometers.info/coronavirus. All trackers have slightly conflicting data, but this one is easy to do comparisons with. Scroll to the spreadsheet of countries and click on column 11: “Deaths/1M Population.” It ranks them in order.
Donald G. McNeil Jr. was The New York Times lead reporter on the pandemic from 2020 to early 2021, and his work helped the Times win the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service. His book, “The Wisdom of Plagues: Lessons from 25 Years of Covering Pandemics,” is due out in January.