The United States is starting to turn on its top coronavirus expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, with prominent voices in the country’s media suggesting he has too much influence.
Dr Fauci, an expert in infectious diseases who’s led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since the 1980s, has been President Donald Trump’s most visible scientific adviser throughout the crisis.
He serves on the White House’s coronavirus task force, and often appears at the President’s televised media briefings.
In recent weeks, as Mr Trump has urged states to reopen their economies, Dr Fauci has been more circumspect, stressing the risks that come with lifting restrictions prematurely.
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That apparent division between the President and his adviser was on display yesterday when Dr Fauci fronted a Senate hearing. He said America should be “focused on the proven public health practices of containment and mitigation”.
The US has recorded 1.4 million confirmed cases of the virus, and its death toll stands at 85,000. Reopening too quickly, Dr Fauci said, could cause another spike in deaths.
“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, and in fact paradoxically, will set you back – not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” he told the senators.
His comments were met with scepticism by some of the senators from Mr Trump’s Republican Party.
“As much as I respect you, Dr Fauci, I don’t think you are the end-all. I don’t think you’re the one person who gets to make a decision,” said Senator Rand Paul, from Kentucky. Senator Paul is also a physician.
“We can listen to your advice, but there are people on the other side saying there is not going to be a surge, and that we can safely reopen the economy. And the facts will bear this out.
“I hope that people who are predicting doom and gloom, and saying, ‘Oh we can’t do this, there’s going to be a surge,’ will admit they were wrong if there is not a surge. Because I think that is what’s going to happen.”
Senator Paul said he was particularly keen to see schools across the country reopen.
“If we keep kids out of school for another year, what’s going to happen is, the poor and underprivileged kids who don’t have a parent that’s able to teach them at home are not going to learn for a full year,” he said.
“I think we ought to look at the Swedish model and we ought to look at letting our kids get back to school. I think it’s a huge mistake if we don’t open the schools in the fall.”
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Sweden never shut its schools, and has not imposed the stringent lockdown measures seen in many other countries. Businesses like restaurants and clubs have stayed open, albeit with social distancing guidelines enforced. There is a modest 50-person restriction on public gatherings.
The country has recorded 28,000 cases of the virus and 3460 deaths. According to Johns Hopkins University, it has a mortality rate of 33 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, which is a little higher than America (25), but significantly lower than some other European countries, such as Belgium (76), Spain (58), Italy (51) and the United Kingdom (49).
In case you’re wondering, Australia’s figure is 0.4 deaths per 100,000 people.
Responding to Senator Paul, Dr Fauci stressed there were still many things scientists did not understand about the virus.
“I have never made myself out to be the end-all and only voice in this,” he said.
“I’m a scientist, a physician and a public health official. I give advice according to the best scientific evidence.
“I don’t give advice about economic things, I don’t give advice about anything other than public health.
“We don’t know everything about this virus. And we really better be very careful, particularly when it comes to children. Because the more and more we learn, we’re seeing things about what this virus can do that we didn’t see from the studies in China or Europe.”
Dr Fauci pointed to the example of young children, infected with the coronavirus, who have presented with a “very strange inflammatory syndrome”, similar to Kawasaki disease.
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“I think we’d better be careful if we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects,” he said.
“I don’t know everything about this disease, and that’s why I am very reserved about making broad predictions.”
Dr Fauci’s testimony, and particularly his exchange with Senator Paul, drew a strong response from the commentariat.
“The children must stay home or countless people could die. That’s the message. It’s time to ask a very simple question – how does he know this, exactly?” asked Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
“Is Tony Fauci right about the science? Do we have any particular reason to think he is right?
“Right now there is an awful lot of evidence indicating that America should cautiously reopen.”
Carlson said Senator Paul was correct to question the expertise of health officials.
“A lot of wrong predictions have come out of Washington on the question of the coronavirus, and quite a few of them came directly from Dr Fauci himself,” he said.
“We are not singling him out or attacking him. We’ve certainly made a lot of wrong predictions on this show. But we’re not in charge of the entire country.”
He played a few examples of seemingly conflicting advice Dr Fauci had given throughout the pandemic. In one clip, Dr Fauci told Americans not to shake hands. In another, he said they should “weigh the risks” of hooking up with strangers, but stopped short of forbidding it.
“This is buffoon-level stuff, at that point,” Carlson said, going on to label Dr Fauci the “chief buffoon of the professional class”.
“We’re not doing this to mock the guy. Anybody who talks as much as Anthony Fauci does is apt to say some stupid things. The point is, is this the guy into whom you want to vest all of your trust? Is this the guy you want to chart the future of the country? Maybe not.
“This is a very serious matter, the decisions we’re making right now. Tony Fauci has not been elected to anything. He’s had the same job for nearly 40 years. That means the majority of American voters never even indirectly picked him for the role he has now. This is not the result of any kind of democratic process at work at all.
“Yet in the last four months, Dr Fauci has become one of the most powerful people in the world. Some, particularly in our media and in our Democratic establishment, are clamouring to give Dr Fauci even more power. Why?
“Some people think that he should be dictator for the duration of the crisis. That’s insanity. Dr Fauci, like every other human being, is flawed. He says things that are wise, he says things that are profoundly silly.
“He is not the one person who should be in charge when it comes to making long term recommendations. This guy, Fauci, may be even more off-base than your average epidemiologist.”
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