Mar 12, 2021 - Health

Fauci's "most difficult decision" in March of 2020

Photo illustration of Dr. Anthony Fauci and geometric shapes
Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

NIAID director Anthony Fauci said he faced a "most difficult decision" when it was determined that the spike in cases in New York in early March were coming from Europe, not China.

Why it matters: In an interview with Axios Re:Cap, Fauci recalled having to tell the Trump administration that they needed to ban travel from Europe.

What he's saying: "Dominating in my thoughts that week was the day we shut down or made the decision to shut down Europe," Fauci said of the week of March 9, 2020.

  • "It was clear that New York was getting hit by cases that were coming, not from China directly, but were coming from Italy and then essentially the rest of Europe."
  • During a meeting with former Vice President Mike Pence, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, and former Health Secretary Alex Azar, Trump asked Fauci what he thought the U.S. should do.
  • He replied: "If you really don't want a big influx of cases coming in from Europe, we really need to shut down, you know, Italy. And then they said, 'Well, you can't just do Italy. We got to do essentially all the countries in the European Union.'"
  • "To the president's credit, he said, 'Well, if we got to do it, if the docs think we need to do it, we're just going to have to do it.'"

Flashback: Fauci said the information trickling in from China in December and early January seemed to get progressively worse.

  • Fauci said he first learned of the outbreak in China and Europe on New Year's Eve from CDC director Bob Redfield. "They have an outbreak in Wuhan and they think it's in a market and they think it's just jumping species and there are 24 cases," Fauci recalled Redfield telling him.
  • "Bob and I knew from our experience that that's how SARS started, but you don't have 24 people getting infected in the same wet market. You get one person and they present it to somebody who presents it to somebody."
  • " So I said, what the heck is going on with 24 people? So the thought is that maybe they weren't telling us everything."

The big picture: Fauci said he does not think there's anything he could have done differently last year, "We didn't have the knowledge then."

  • "If we knew then that this was a virus that was capable of spectacularly efficient spread, particularly among people who have no symptoms that are spreading it, then you would have said we should shut the country down now. You know what would have happened? People would have looked at me like I was crazy."

More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Axios is looking back at the week of March 9, 2020 — the week high-profile leaders were forced to make consequential choices that upended our lives and society. Subscribe to Axios Re:Cap here.

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