Some viewers of the daily Mike Pence-led briefings at the White House may wonder why everyone increasingly defers to a diminutive, Brooklyn-accented 79-year-old doctor, Tony Fauci.
They do because, as I have learned over many years of talking with and more recently interviewing this man, he is without doubt the world’s leading authority on infectious diseases. In any area of human activity or knowledge, there always seems to be one person who is the global gold standard. In the world of infectious diseases that person is Tony Fauci.
So the American people — indeed, people around the globe — should be grateful that Tony has dug into this crisis with the same work-around-the-clock, just-the-facts ma’am style that he has used while serving under and working with six U.S. presidents. He is as apolitical as anyone can be. I have no idea if he is registered with any political party; I suspect though that he is rabidly Independent. His only focus is getting the facts out, providing the best health care treatment and information possible, and saving lives.
A top expert from AIDS to Ebola
Tony Fauci joined the National Institutes of Health in 1968, after completing his medical training at Weill Cornell Medical Center, and he has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease since 1984 — 36 years. Hard to believe anyone can run anything that long and still be at the top of his game. But Tony is. During this period, he has dealt with every serious infectious disease challenge — malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, MERS, SARS, Dengue fever, Ebola, to name a few, and now what seems to be the most serious pandemic since the Spanish Flu of the early 20th century, COVID-19.
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Among Tony’s best known accomplishments, beyond simply running the institute and training dozens of the world’s top infectious disease professionals, has been helping to discover how HIV leads to AIDS and, later, leading the effort to create (at President George W. Bush’s direction) the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has transformed the treatment of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and other parts of the developing world. Millions of lives have been saved by this program alone. More recently, he has been an architect and powerful advocate of President DONALD Trump’s plan for ending the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. through HIV antiretroviral therapy targeted to disease hotspots.
In his spare time, Tony has been involved with writing or editing more than 1,100 scholarly articles and several textbooks, and, in the process, has become one of the most cited authorities of the entire medical profession.
For these breakthrough activities and his dedicated service (at a government salary) for more than a half century (he worked at NIH for 16 years before assuming his current role), Tony has received, and earned, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Lasker Award (called the American Nobel by many).
With this long service and universal acclaim, one might think Tony would let it get to his head, at least a little bit. Not the case, though.
Selfless commitment to public service
He is readily accessible to those who need treatment — he still runs a lab at NIH — or need information. Tony still lives in the same house he bought when he first moved to Washington, and it is there that he and his wife Christine have raised their three talented daughters (though none of them chose to attend medical school).
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Until the latest crisis, Tony has often commuted to NIH by Metro, typically after running three miles for his daily exercise. And when he has been invited to make speeches in the Washington area or on Capitol Hill, he invariably turns down a car and driver for the Metro. (This practice has had to change of late for the obvious reasons).
There are, of course, many other dedicated federal servants who also view their commitment to the country and its people over financial rewards. But surely no federal civil servant, in any area, can exceed Tony Fauci’s long-term and selfless commitment to this country and the health of its people.
I tried years ago, when Tony was approaching a normal retirement age, to see if he might want after a normal lifetime of federal service, to take some of his considerable skills and knowledge to the private sector. He quickly said no — money did not motivate him, serving the country did. And he stayed at NIH — to the country’s good fortune.
If there is any one medical professional who can help the country deal with the COVID-19 crisis, it is Tony Fauci, an example of the best this country has to offer.
He is not a miracle worker. No one is.
But Tony Fauci has the decades of experience needed to understand infectious disease problems and prescribe a treatment that should, in time, provide the requisite comfort, even if, in the short term, the medicine is painful and inconvenient.
David M. Rubenstein is the co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group.