Aug 23, 2022 - Health

Fauci's successor will inherit a polarization problem

Tony Fauci

NIAID director Anthony Fauci. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

NIAID director Anthony Fauci's retirement will leave a gaping hole in the nation's flagship biomedical research agency and tee up a test of whether his successor will be an equally public figure — and as controversial.

Why it matters: Fauci's consistent presence as the public face of the pandemic response over the last two and a half years has been a source of comfort for some Americans while enraging others. What happens in his absence will reveal whether such deep polarization stems more from Fauci or is a function of today's political environment.

What they're saying: In an interview with Axios, Fauci said that his notoriety is largely attributable to circumstances that put him "right in the eye of the hurricane of some very important emerging infectious disease outbreaks."

  • Throughout a career responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Zika virus, Ebola and the COVID pandemic, it's been important to "try and explain [the science] to the American public in a way and a form in a way they can really appreciate. Whether or not someone else can and wants to do that, I imagine they could," he said.
  • "I think it would be desirable to have not only someone who could replace me to do this but to have a lot of scientists who are adept at communicating to the public."

State of play: The NIH still doesn't have a permanent director following former director Francis Collins' retirement from the agency last year. Lawrence Tabak is currently acting director.

  • Fauci's departure leaves another large hole to fill in the midst of several public health crises.

Between the lines: While Fauci has drawn plenty of praise for his relentless public presence and straight talk, he's become an avatar of government overreach to many on the political right. Republicans have attacked him as being too eager for media attention and for offering inconsistent advice as the pandemic wore on.

  • He was seen as either a hero or a villain for his attempts to steer the Trump administration's COVID response, and his relationship with Trump — and thus many Republicans — rapidly deteriorated.
  • Although Fauci isn't solely in charge of pandemic communications for the Biden administration, this messaging while he also served as the president's chief medical advisor has also been at times confusing and inconsistent.

Yes, but: The challenge for Fauci's successor will be to communicate the science to Americans without alienating a third of the country — if such a thing is possible today.

  • Fauci says the blame doesn't lie with scientists and public health officials. "When you have people who distort facts and create unreality and live by conspiracy theories, it isn't the scientists who are the polarizers," Fauci said.
  • "It isn't like I or my colleagues say, 'I'm going to be polarizing today.' You stick to the facts, and if people push back against the science and the evidence and create unreality, that's the reason for the polarization."

One piece of advice for his successor: "Stick with the science, and try as best as you can to completely stay out of the political stuff. The political stuff will spill over into what you do ... that's unfortunate. But the scientists themselves must stay out of the politics."

  • For example, encouraging people to get vaccinated or to wear a mask in certain situations "is just a scientifically sound thing," he said.

The other side: Many Republicans very much disagree with the sentiment that Fauci isn't polarizing.

  • The tricky thing about public health and emerging threats like COVID is that trust is essential to influencing behavior. That makes balancing politics and science a dangerous game — one that Fauci's successor will find hard to avoid.
Go deeper