Anthony Fauci’s legacy: Saving lives, media messages and ‘Brooklyn tenacity’

The chief medical adviser to President Biden, Fauci has helped lead the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Health leaders say he helped save millions and reduced the stigma of feared diseases.

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s chief infectious disease expert, decided that more than half a century is enough.

Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said Monday that he is stepping down in December. Fauci had previously said he would leave before the end of the president’s term, but he moved up his departure a bit. Health and science leaders say Fauci’s work has helped save millions of lives while also reducing the stigma around feared diseases.

He will step down as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and Chief of the NIAID Laboratory of Immunoregulation.

Fauci, who is 81, says he’s going to begin “the next chapter of his career,” indicating he’s not exactly headed for a life of leisure.

“While I am moving on from my current positions, I am not retiring,” Fauci said in his statement.

“After more than 50 years of government service, I plan to pursue the next phase of my career while I still have so much energy and passion for my field," Fauci said. "I want to use what I have learned as NIAID Director to continue to advance science and public health and to inspire and mentor the next generation of scientific leaders as they help prepare the world to face future infectious disease threats.”

Service to seven presidents

President Biden hailed Fauci’s service in both the COVID-19 pandemic and his work during the AIDS crisis and the Ebola outbreak. Biden said one of his first phone calls after winning the election was to ask Fauci to be his chief medical advisor.

“In that role, I’ve been able to call him at any hour of the day for his advice as we’ve tackled this once-in-a-generation pandemic,” Biden said. “His commitment to the work is unwavering, and he does it with an unparalleled spirit, energy, and scientific integrity.”

Fauci will leave a month before the new Congress convenes. Some Republicans have been critical of Fauci for his work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the GOP could regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate after the fall elections. Some vowed to call Fauci for hearings even after he’s out of government service.

Former President Donald Trump led much of the partisan criticism of Fauci, but Fauci served under seven presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike. He first took over NIAID under then-President Ronald Reagan. Former President George W. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008.

“Because of Dr. Fauci’s many contributions to public health, lives here in the United States and around the world have been saved,” Biden said.

Saving lives, protecting patients

Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection, recalled working with Fauci during the Ebola outbreak.

“Dr. Fauci is a renowned scientist with decades of effective public service,” Frieden posted on Twitter. “I worked closely with Tony during the Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016 and saw the deep ethical commitment he brings to the work.”

“He has made a remarkable impact over the course of his decades-long career, including helping to create PEPFAR, saving millions of lives,” Frieden said, referring to the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

Jack Resneck Jr., the president of the American Medical Association, said in a statement that Fauci “has been a strong and steady voice for science- and data-driven responses to some of the biggest public health challenges of our time.”

Resneck paid tribute to Fauci’s work to battle diseases and find medical breakthroughs. He also noted Fauci’s adept skill at explaining science and medicine to the general public. Fauci has been a regular presence on news and talk shows in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Through the HIV/AIDS crisis, Ebola, Zika, and nearly three years of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Dr. Fauci has not only provided sage advice and counsel to presidents of both parties, but he smartly leveraged modern media to deliver clear and direct guidance and information to the American people,” Resneck said.

“Over his decades of work, Dr. Fauci has protected patients, saved lives, and, through simple human actions like hugging the Dallas nurse who survived Ebola, destigmatized disease.”

'For Tony, it's personal'

Lawrence Tabak, the acting director of the National Institutes of Health, called Fauci’s departure “will cause a tectonic shift in the modern history of the National Institutes of Health.”

“He is the model public servant — dedicated and selfless, and a brilliant scientist and physician who is passionate about developing treatments and cures for those who are sick and suffering,” Tabak said in a statement. “He has dedicated his life’s work to advancing knowledge about the causes of complex diseases ranging from HIV to asthma, rarely satisfied with anything less than a cure.”

“For Tony, it’s personal,” Tabak said. “He works tirelessly on behalf of all patients, often at great personal expense, and always bringing his Brooklyn tenacity to the fight.”

Changes in Washington

Fauci’s departure comes after a couple of other notable figures in health and research have left the Biden administration.

After more than 12 years as director of the NIH, Francis Collins stepped down in December.

Eric Lander, Biden’s previous science adviser, stepped down in February after reports emerged that he had treated staffers badly. Collins then stepped in as acting science adviser.

Arati Prabhakar has been nominated to serve as the president’s science adviser. Prabhakar previously directed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

If confirmed by the Senate, Prabhakar would be the first woman to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She’s also the first person of color and the first immigrant to be nominated for the post, the White House has said.