In 'Fauci,' An Up Close Look At 'America's Doctor' Scott Simon speaks with Michael Specter, a staff writer at the New Yorker, about his new biography about Dr. Anthony Fauci and his career as one America's leading scientists.
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In 'Fauci,' An Up Close Look At 'America's Doctor'

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In 'Fauci,' An Up Close Look At 'America's Doctor'

In 'Fauci,' An Up Close Look At 'America's Doctor'

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked the other day if he's been involved in the diagnosis and treatment of President Trump for COVID-19. He answered, I think it's obvious that I have not been involved. That's from the man who led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through crises that include HIV, swine flu, avian flu, Zika, Ebola and now, of course, the coronavirus pandemic.

Michael Specter, staff writer for The New Yorker and adjunct professor of bioengineering at Stanford, has covered him through all of it. He's produced a biography in the form of an audiobook about the doctor who's figured through so many public health emergencies. It's called "Fauci." Michael Specter, best known for his 2009 book "Denialism," joins us from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

MICHAEL SPECTER: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: You've covered him for three decades, and he spoke to you pretty openly and acerbically about pressures he's been under. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: You mean when the president of the United States has an absolute professional opposition, data gathering thing against you? Oh, that's not pressure.

SIMON: Help us understand what he has revealed to you he's been working under.

SPECTER: It's not easy to have the job of sort of directing the infectious disease program for the United States and deal with a leader who does everything he can to contradict not just what Fauci thinks, but what clear evidence and data demonstrates over and over again. It's very difficult.

SIMON: And I suppose we should note, in a week in which there was a kidnap plot revealed against the governor of Michigan, Dr. Fauci has had to put up with some threats, hasn't he?

SPECTER: Yeah, not only Fauci, but his three daughters, his wife, who runs the bioethics division at NIH - they all have to have security now because the threats are severe. He lived through the AIDS crisis, and he was the focus of a great deal of venom at that time, but there was never any of that. There was never any physical threats like there are now.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the period of the AIDS crisis and maybe what Dr. Fauci learned. You and he seem to agree that he learned and changed through that period, didn't he?

SPECTER: He was a bench scientist, and a brilliant one. And he was doing important work at NIH. And along came this unknown disease. He got involved in it, and he started to realize over time, and it took a while, that the federal government just was not responding to the needs of people with HIV and that they were doing backwards things, like if you were taking a drug called AZT for the disease itself, you were not allowed to participate in trials of other drugs.

SIMON: We have a clip about Dr. Fauci encountering a man in San Francisco who was living with AIDS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAUCI: And he looked at me and he says, what kind of a choice is that? You're telling me I should either die or go blind, but I can't do both. And when he said that, I said, oh, my God, this is really nuts. And that's when I became a real, almost confrontative activist against my own government that was not allowing these things to happen.

SPECTER: This man was on AZT, but he also had an infection called cytomegalovirus. And he could not be treated for that with an experimental medication because the rules stated that if you were on AZT, you couldn't participate in another trial.

SIMON: And that conditioned his thinking from that point forth, in your estimation.

SPECTER: I feel like it was a major turning point in his life and his career. There just aren't that many important people who change their minds and admit to being wrong and doing the opposite of what they used to do. A lot of the people at NIH were appalled, and he was right because he relied on data and he relied on information. He also had a bit of compassion, something we also seem to be lacking these days.

SIMON: In your audiobook, there's a clip from C-SPAN, November 1993 - Dr. Fauci and the late activist Larry Kramer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAUCI: We're not going to get the answer tomorrow, and the kinds of inroads that are made, as small as they are - science works in small building blocks of knowledge. And...

LARRY KRAMER: Oh, Tony, stop it. Yes, the answer could come tomorrow. Why do you automatically take such a negative attitude? You're not going to get it...

FAUCI: Larry....

KRAMER: Let me finish. It happens in big building blocks as well as little building blocks.

FAUCI: It does.

KRAMER: It's all of this rhetoric of yours and everybody else in the bureaucracy. You know...

SIMON: Do you get the sense that Dr. Fauci is ever at the point of dropping the bureaucratic rhetoric and just coming out and being blunt, figuring, what are they going to do at this point?

SPECTER: I think his basic feeling - and the thing you played with Larry and Fauci is kind of indicative of it because Larry then goes on to say that he loves Fauci. And given the fact that he spent eight years calling him Adolf Hitler, that's quite a change.

I think Fauci's view is if you just say, hey, you guys don't know what you're talking about; I've had it, then you're not out there helping the American people get better or leading the discussion over ways to protect the health for the future. And that's what he wants to do. So I think there are lots of times - and he said this once to me. And, yeah, he would love to chide people. But if he does that, he's gone. And if he's gone, then he doesn't have influence.

And I couldn't do it. I'm not sure if you could do it. But he manages to keep a sort of calm and carry on. And, boy, it's not easy.

SIMON: He has been wrong a few times in this period, hasn't he?

SPECTER: Sure. The thing about Fauci is when he's wrong, he actually then changes and says he's wrong. You know, science is not a static thing. And I think people get all worked up and say, Fauci was wrong. Of course he was wrong. Who isn't wrong? The question is, when you're wrong, what are you going to do about it? And I think his approach, the approach of a good scientist is to look at the data that exists and make your best judgment on the best data available.

SIMON: Michael Specter - his new audiobook is "Fauci." Michael, thank you so much for being with us.

SPECTER: Scott, thank you for having me.

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