Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is learning quickly the pandemic besieging the world right now is a veritable political minefield.
As the Trump administration’s lead medical expert on the task force struck in January to deal with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic that began in China, the press and the public alike hang on his every word.
That childlike response is understandable given the life and death nature of pandemics in general and the economic and societal impacts of this pandemic.
The thing is Dr. Fauci is no oracle. He doesn’t have a direct pipeline to the gods.
And when it comes to the Wuhan virus, Dr, Fauci has been all over the map.
Last Sunday, Dr. Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the United States “could have saved lives” by acting earlier on the corona virus outbreak.
“Obviously, if we had, right from the beginning, shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different, but there was a lot of push back about shutting things down back then.”
Of course, that statement caused a stir, coming on the heels of a New York Times story that top administration officials had urged the president to take more aggressive actions weeks before he did.
As Dr. Fauci told Tapper, “We look at it from a pure health standpoint. We make a recommendation. Often the recommendation is taken. Sometimes it’s not.”
That statement would make it appear that Dr. Fauci was always certain about the impact of the virus.
But that’s not the case.
In January, Dr. Fauci was more concerned about the flu. “We are still in the middle of the flu season,” he told the Washington Times. “People are dying from the flu every day. Our problem right now, in real time, is the flu.”
But he covered himself by adding, “… (I)t is uncertain what the dynamics or evolution of this other virus (the corona virus) is. Right now, the risk is low, but there is unpredictability.”
As for Dr. Fauci’s assertion that stricter mitigation efforts would have reduced the severity of the virus’ impact in February as he and others apparently suggested, the good doctor is on record as having told the Today show on February 29th that there was no need to change lifestyles yet, because the risk was low.
Yet again, though, Dr. Fauci was quick to add that all could change and you have to watch.
Around the same time, Dr. Fauci wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that the corona virus could end up with a case fatality rate on par with a severe seasonal outbreak of the flu.
“If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%. This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively.”
In other words, anyone looking for hard and fast conclusions about the virus from Dr. Fauci will be sorely disappointed.
Now, the problem is that opponents of President Trump seize upon the trite assertions and fail to see the nuance of what Dr. Fauci is saying.
Yes, if the country had been locked down at the first sign of trouble, lives would have been saved. But no one in the World Health Organization was saying that.
In fact, the WHO was busily downplaying the severity of the virus. It said that there was no evidence of human to human spread of the disease. And when it was obvious there was, it said that it could not be spread easily between humans. Then when that was clearly wrong, it still did not declare an emergency or even a pandemic.
Without data from the WHO and China that indicated the severity of this viral outbreak, most health officials were hedging their bets.
It would be nice, of course, if these doctors and health officials could simply say that they don’t know and didn’t know in the early days of the outbreak.
Dr. Fauci was using hindsight when he was answering Tapper’s questions, but in truth he didn’t and couldn’t have that level of certainty back in February.
Quite frankly, Dr. Fauci should have made that clear to Tapper. That he didn’t is the reason he now finds himself in hot water.
Given the level of faith that President Trump has placed in Dr. Fauci, the latter needs to live up to that faith and not leave the impression people knew things when they did not.
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