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  WINDY CITY TIMES

HIV at 40: Dr. Anthony Fauci on the early days of another pandemic
by Andrew Davis
2021-06-10

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Dr. Anthony Fauci has been called "America's doctor"—and with good reason. His face and advice regarding COVID have seemingly been omnipresent since the virus affected the masses early in 2020.

However, decades before the word "coronavirus" became known to the public, the current director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)/chief medical advisor to the president was on the forefront in the scientific battle against another emerging pandemic: HIV/AIDS. (In fact, it was because of HIV/AIDS that Fauci has advised every president since Ronald Reagan, who was chief executive when this disease devastated so many in the 1980s.)

Windy City Times talked with Fauci about the early days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic—but the conversation started with a question about his current condition.

Windy City Times: After seemingly being the face of COVID medical advice for the past year, how are you physically and mentally?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: You know, it's been interesting, Andrew. It's been a surrealistic year. I have not had a day off in 15 months, and it's almost like you're in a zone. You know how basketball players make all those shots and they say you're in a zone—like with Michael Jordan?

WCT: Yeah. They also called it being "unconscious."

Fauci: Exactly. That's the way it is now with me. The work we're doing is so important and there's so much suffering that you don't think about anything else than doing something about it. You don't dwell on the fact that you're tired or need sleep—you just do it.

When this is over—and that will happen at some point—we're going to look back and ask, "How the hell did we do that?"

WCT: Regarding HIV, take me back to when you first heard about AIDS, in 1981.

Fauci: It's totally embedded in my mind because I've thought about it and lived it over and over again.

I was sitting in my office at the NIH [National Institutes of Health] clinical center, where my laboratory was at the time. It was the first week of June in 1981, and I saw the MMWR [The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report], which described this extraordinary and interesting report of fine young men—and, curiously, all gay men—who were previously well but developed this condition called pneumocystis pneumonia.

Now, at the time, I had been at the NIH for nine years and I had been board-certified in infectious diseases, clinical immunology and internal medicine. I was the infection-diseases consultant, with several of my colleagues, at the clinic. We used to see cancer patients who were immunosuppressed with chemotherapy, and several of them would get pneumocystis, so right away I knew that [those with AIDS] had to be severely immunosuppressed. I thought that it had to be a fluke or maybe some drug they were taking, like poppers.

One month later, in the first week of July, what I believe was the transforming event in my career happened—when I got the second MMWR. That one described 26 young men who were all gay. They weren't just from Los Angeles; they were also from San Francisco and New York [City], and they presented pneumocystis as well as other opportunistic infections. That's when I got goosebumps because I realized this was a new disease and it was sexually transmitted. Then I thought about it for a while: I'm an immunologist, and this is an infectious disease without a name or etiology—because it's 1981—but if what I think is going to happen actually happens, it's going to explode not just in the gay community, but throughout the world.

I decided to change the direction of my career later that summer, and I was on a pretty steep pathway toward a very successful career in immunology and infectious diseases. I remember that my mentors asked, "What are you doing? You're throwing away this incredibly promising career. Why are you studying this disease that's a fluke? It's going to go away." And I said, "It's not going to go away." I even wrote a paper at the end of 1981 (and it was published in 1982). I said, "Anyone who thinks this disease is automatically going to disappear doesn't really know what they're talking about." Unfortunately, that was one of the most prophetic things I've ever [stated].

Then, as the years went by, things got worse and worse—and my career got enveloped in studying this strange disease. In 1984, when the position of NIAID director became available—a job I still have, 37 years later—I realized the impact I could have because I could put a major emphasis on AIDS.

WCT: But you, and President Reagan, did get some blowback from the LGBTQ community.

Fauci: Oh, yeah—and it was pretty clear why. I was one of the few people who was out there and very visible, talking about increasing support. I would go into the community and was on TV and the radio. So I became the face of the federal government. So activists said, "We're not part of the dialogue. We want our concerns addressed."

Nobody in the scientific community was paying attention to them. So in order to get attention—in what I thought was a smart move—[the activists] became very confrontational and provocative, and made me a target because I was a federal person. Larry Kramer called me a murderer and an incompetent idiot—and they certainly got my attention.

What I did was get past the theatrics and confrontations, and start to listen to what they said. And once I started to listen, it made perfect sense. I'm talking with you on the phone and I'm almost at the conference room where I first invited them in, in the late '80s. They went gradually from totally attacking me to developing a cordial relationship to having a collaboration. Now, 37 years later, some of those activists are my best friends. [Laughs] It's been an interesting evolution.

WCT: Did you think the world would be marking the 40th anniversary of HIV/AIDS with no cure or vaccine?

Fauci: I erred in my estimation in two ways.

I thought we'd have a vaccine much sooner. But I never thought we'd have such spectacular therapies, where you could treat somebody with a single pill for the rest of their lives. Not only can levels be brought so low that they're undetectable and people can live lives that are practically normal, but it can be practically impossible for them to transmit the virus to someone else.

So I underestimated how well we would do with therapy, but I overestimated the situation with the vaccine because, at that time, we didn't realize the virus has this spectacular ability to integrate itself into the genome of the cell. Once it does that, you can't get rid of it. When the body doesn't want to make a good response against HIV, it's hard to make a vaccine against it. So, it's been very interesting.


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