The New York Times is pivoting away from its glorification of former top Covid adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci to muster up a semblance of critical questioning that should have been its job throughout the Covid pandemic.
The Times, of course, softens the blow of confronting the man that publications like itself made the “face” of the Covid pandemic. He became to many liberal observers the “Science” of Covid-19, rather than a deeply conflicted public health official with a penchant for making contradictory statements and troubling ties to the Wuhan lab where the virus likely originated.
But instead of confronting Dr. Fauci over his ever-shifting positions, Big Pharma’s incestuous ‘royalties‘ relationship with the National Institutes of Health, and the hard science backing up Covid policy recommendations on everything from general masking to the risk to children to the effectiveness of vaccines in stopping infection and the spread, ‘mainstream’ publications like the Times tended to regurgitate advice from the public health industry.
In the Times interview conducted by David Wallace-Wells and Dr. Anthony Fauci, there are a number of intriguing passages worth highlighting and discussing. However, for the sake of conciseness, only a few of the most remarkable admissions will be highlighted below.
Dr. Fauci’s Shifting Stance on Masks: A Look Back at the Past Three Years
Dr. Anthony Fauci was at the forefront of advocating for the use of masks and associated mandates throughout much of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, his stance on masks has evolved over time, with conflicting statements and changing recommendations.
Initially, Dr. Fauci confidently stated that masks were ineffective and unnecessary for the general population, citing scientific evidence and research that supported this view. However, without new data or evidence, he quickly changed his position, declaring masks as a vital tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He explained away his deception of the public by stating that he was trying to stop a purported mask shortage. But in private emails, he conceded that a typical mask was “not really effective in keeping out virus.”
As reality disproved some of Dr. Fauci’s assertions, he went on to recommend the use of two masks without providing concrete evidence, but rather citing “common sense” and likelihood of effectiveness. Then, when even more evidence accumulated that the masks weren’t stopping the spread, Fauci suggested that masks were “a symbol for people to see that that’s the kind of thing you should be doing.”
Dr. Fauci also defended indefinite mask mandates and disagreed with those who believed masking should be a personal choice. He even advocated for forcibly masking children, saying there’s “no doubt” that children should be masked, despite lacking substantial evidence to support such recommendations, but rather based on his own determination to enforce certain behaviors.
Now that mandates are lifting and Dr. Fauci has moved on to other endeavors, some have raised questions about his performance during the pandemic, prompting a closer examination of his changing stance on masks and mandates over the past three years.
The following exchange sums up the current iteration of Dr. Fauci’s position: Cloth masks that were generally worn by the public, including by schoolchildren, were not really effective at all.
Wallace-Wells: It was around the same time that the mask guidance wavered — first, masks were not recommended, and then they were.9 But I want to ask you to reflect on the even bigger picture: Were the culture-war fights over masking worth it? Or did those fights have a bigger negative impact on future vaccine uptake among conservatives than the positive impact they had on spread? To be clear: I’m not someone who doesn’t think masks work. I think the science and the data show that they do work, but that they aren’t perfect and that at the population level the effect can be somewhat small. In what was probably our best study, from Bangladesh, in places where mask use tripled, positive tests were reduced by less than 10 percent.In part, this was out of concern that a public run on masks would deprive health care providers of them. Asked about the early guidance in June 2020, Fauci explained, “The public-health community — and many people were saying this — were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply.”
Fauci: It’s a good point in general, but I disagree with your premise a bit. From a broad public-health standpoint, at the population level, masks work at the margins — maybe 10 percent. But for an individual who religiously wears a mask, a well-fitted KN95 or N95, it’s not at the margin. It really does work.
This is an astounding position given that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was never a significant threat to healthy children; yet, there are still children to this day being sent to school with their faces covered after more than three years of a now-elapsed pandemic.
This is no way for anyone to spend a childhood, but public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci have disturbingly appeared unconcerned about the long-term damage that everyday masking does to children.
Dr. Fauci’s statement shows that nothing has changed in terms of his remorse for the psycho-social toll that everyday masking has done to children.
In another passage, Dr. Fauci concedes that the debate about masking was legitimate, even as he points to arguments about universal vaccination should have been beyond debate.
Wallace-Wells: How do you explain it?
Fauci: The divisiveness was palpable, just in trying to get a coherent message across of following fundamental public-health principles. I understand that there will always be differences of opinion among people saying, “Well, what’s the cost-benefit balance of restriction or of masks?” But when you have fundamental arguments about things like whether to get vaccinated or not — that is extraordinary.
Dr. Anthony Fauci Dodges Blame for the Covid Pandemic Response
The interview at one point turned to what went wrong in the Covid pandemic response. The conversation eventually turned towards political disagreement about the nation’s handling of the Covid pandemic.
Wallace-Wells: It sounds as if you are talking about this primarily as a phenomenon of the right. But you’ve been criticized a fair amount from the left as well, especially as the Biden years have worn on. This is an oversimplification, but on the right, you could say the main thrust of criticism was that the public response was too heavy-handed. On the left, it has been that it was too hands-off. That in the Biden era, guidance about masking and testing and quarantining were driven less by public-health concerns than by what was seen by the White House as economic, political and social realities — that people wanted to move on, however many people were dying.
Fauci: I certainly think things could have been done differently — and better — on both sides. I mean, anybody who thinks that what we or anybody else did was perfect is not looking at reality. Nothing was done perfectly. But what I can say is that, at least to my perception, the emphasis strictly on the science and public health — that is what public-health people should do. I’m not an economist. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not an economic organization. The surgeon general is not an economist. So we looked at it from a purely public-health standpoint. It was for other people to make broader assessments — people whose positions include but aren’t exclusively about public health. Those people have to make the decisions about the balance between the potential negative consequences of something versus the benefits of something.
This is exactly the criticism that President Donald Trump had about the “lockdowns,” although he drew scathing criticism from advocating that the nation be “opened up.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis provoked ire for opening the state sooner than federal health officials recommended. Fauci himself warned states like Florida and Texas about the purportedly dire consequences of opening up too soon, which never fully materialized.
Fauci objected to being blamed for the economic damage done by state lockdowns.
Certainly there could have been a better understanding of why people were emphasizing the economy. But when people say, “Fauci shut down the economy” — it wasn’t Fauci. The C.D.C. was the organization that made those recommendations. I happened to be perceived as the personification of the recommendations. But show me a school that I shut down and show me a factory that I shut down. Never. I never did. I gave a public-health recommendation that echoed the C.D.C.’s recommendation, and people made a decision based on that. But I never criticized the people who had to make the decisions one way or the other.
Fauci: No One ‘Did Anything Wrong’ by Failing to Communicate Actual Covid Risk
Dr. Fauci glancingly addressed the convenient missed opportunities that public health officials missed communicating the actual Covid risk. Remarkably, the New York Times interviewer acknowledges a point made here that had garnered flack from alleged “fact checkers”: Most of the public was exposed to SARS-CoV-2 by the end of the Omicron wave and thus had “natural immunity.”
Wallace-Wells: But when I watched your recent lecture at Georgetown, you didn’t talk about herd immunity at all. Nobody does. Which makes sense, given that perhaps 95 percent of the country has had the disease, on top of the almost 70 percent who have been vaccinated, and the virus is obviously still circulating. And in fact a number of epidemiologists I’ve spoken to have told me that given the nature of this virus, we should have never entertained herd immunity as a possibility, given the way SARS-CoV-2 replicates in the body. What went wrong there?
Fauci: Well, I don’t think anybody did anything wrong. What went wrong was that the virus did not act the way one would have thought the virus would act. We made an assumption that turned out to be an incorrect assumption — that this was going to act like other viruses.
The classical definition of herd immunity has been completely turned upside down by Covid. And let me go through the steps. Herd immunity is based on two premises: one, that the virus doesn’t change, and two, that when you get infected or vaccinated, the durability of protection is measured in decades, if not a lifetime. With SARS-CoV-2, we thought protection against infection was going to be measured in a long period of time. And we found out — wait a minute, protection against infection, and against severe disease, is measured in months, not decades. No. 2, the virus that you got infected with in January 2020 is very different from the virus that you’re going to get infected with in 2021 and 2022.
The interviewer made a valid heuristic point that Omicron behaved in a way much differently than the earlier strains of SARS-CoV-2.
Wallace-Wells: Sometimes it seems to me we would be better off thinking of Omicron as an entirely different virus. It’s so distinct from not just the ancestral strain but also the early variants.
Fauci: Exactly. The vaccines protected well against infection and disease with Alpha, Beta and Delta. Then along comes Omicron. It evades immunity so well that a vaccine doesn’t even protect very well against infection. So with a changing virus and a duration of immunity that doesn’t last — what is herd immunity for that virus?
Fauci then responded to an issue that many critics complained about early on in the pandemic: It was being lost on much of the public that Covid-19 has a highly disproportionate impact on the elderly and immunocompromised.
Wallace-Wells: Did we do enough to communicate the age skew of the disease? At the outset, we had a public-health approach that was sort of built around universal protection and the idea that we needed to limit transmission as much as we could in order to protect the most vulnerable people we knew. I think the average American knew that it was more dangerous among older people and that it was more dangerous for people with comorbidities. But I still think, honestly to this day, that almost no one appreciates just how wide that age skew really is, given that the risk to someone in their 80s or 90s is perhaps hundreds of times as high as it is to someone in their 20s or 30s.
Fauci: You are hitting on some terrific points. Did we say that the elderly were much more vulnerable? Yes. Did we say it over and over and over again? Yes, yes, yes. But somehow or other, the general public didn’t get that feeling that the vulnerable are really, really heavily weighted toward the elderly. Like 85 percent of the hospitalizations are there. But if you ask the person in the street, they may say, “Oh, yeah, elderly are more vulnerable, but everybody’s really vulnerable” — which is true, but to a much lesser extent.
However, the push for universal vaccination regardless of prior infection, overall health profile, and age tended towards a convenient boon to Covid vaccine manufacturers. The National Institute of Health, as a matter of fact, has claimed “joint ownership” over the Moderna vaccine. This is clearly a conflict of interest the overshadows the entire Covid pandemic response.
Wallace-Wells: In the vaccine rollout, did we make a mistake in prioritizing health care workers as opposed to seniors?
Fauci: I don’t know if it was a mistake. A mistake is such a charged word. “Fauci made a mistake, people died. Fauci lied, people died.” Come on. I don’t know if it was a mistake. I think the standard way of protecting people who are at greater risk every day was a sound principle.
Dr. Anthony Fauci was undoubtedly under a tremendous amount of pressure throughout the Covid pandemic. It was too large a task for any one person to handle, no matter how brilliant.
But that is precisely the problem: In a nation of three hundred million people, there are thousands of brilliant people that Americans can turn to in order to get personalized health advice.
It is the problem with central planning summarized aptly by F.A. Hayek in his Nobel Prize lecture as the “pretense of knowledge.” Hayek criticizes the “scientistic” attitude – an attitude which “is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed.”
This sums up the precise issue with asking scientists to formulate public policy. Their scientific attitudes on what constitutes rational policy tend towards unbending mandates that are inconsistent with a free society.
Although it is the inclination of many people who are threatened with the unknown to rely on “experts” and to adopt a “herd mentality,” the strength of free nations like the United States has always been its ability to marshal resources across a broad and diverse population of millions of people. Through decentralized decision-making, scientists work together to discover the best solutions. They communicate the known science to elected officials who then implement policies that acknowledge constraints and trade-offs. They freely communicate the results of these policies to other elected officials who evaluate their suitability to local conditions.
The resulting “spontaneous order” reflects the communication of billions of variables in a complex network that cannot be known to any one “expert,” no matter how brilliant he is. And the development of tools like the Internet and Artificial Intelligence has only increased the capability of local officials and individuals to respond to national emergencies such as the Covid pandemic.
Central planners like Dr. Anthony Fauci, however, are fighting a rear-guard battle to maintain authority in the face of vast technological changes that democratize knowledge and undermine their exalted positions. It is a reactionary fight that led to the advocation and implementation of authoritarian and ineffectual policies during the Covid pandemic.
The political division that resulted from the Covid pandemic response was inevitable. It will only get worse in future national emergencies until Americans realize the backwardness and futility of central planning in an extraordinarily complex world. If America wants to be better prepared for the next pandemic, it should restore the principles of a free republic that made it one of the most powerful and advanced nations in the world.
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OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion.