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Dr. Anthony Fauci shares insights on vaccines and career during VCU Massey Cancer Center event

The nation’s top infectious disease expert speaks at Facts & Faith Fridays before stepping down from his role leading the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Fauci Corrected Image Robert A. Winn, M.D., Anthony Fauci, M.D., and Rudene Mercer Hayes in conversation during Facts & Faith Fridays. (VCU Massey Cancer Center)

By Annie Harris 

 

As he steps down from his decades-long career with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and one of the nation’s leading experts on COVID-19, isn’t finished imparting his public health guidance.

 

Fauci joined VCU Massey Cancer Center’s Facts & Faith Fridays for the second time last week, answering questions on the winter risks of COVID-19, influenza (flu) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The conversation, moderated by Facts & Faith Fridays founders and community leaders Rudene Mercer Haynes and Robert A. Winn, M.D., director of Massey Cancer Center, also discussed Fauci’s outlook for future pandemics and shared some of his proudest moments from his long tenure of public service.

 

Since the last time Fauci joined the program in Jan. 2021, many families have been struggling with the so-called “tridemic” of flu, RSV and COVID-19. When asked about why we were seeing a surge in respiratory illnesses, Fauci noted how wearing masks and restrictions on movement in indoor areas protected people over the past two years from catching them. Once COVID-19 vaccinations were available, those masks came off and people went back into the community. 

 

“Before you knew it, flu and RSV were back with a vengeance because people did not have the experience of getting gradually infected over two to three years; now it’s like you’re having it all at once,” Fauci said. 

 

The rate of people contracting COVID-19 and the number of deaths has significantly reduced since this time last year. Despite this trend, Fauci emphasized the virus is still a threat heading into the winter months.

 

“Even though we’re doing much better than we were a year ago, we shouldn’t be complacent in thinking that 300 to 400 deaths a day is a good thing just because it’s lower than 3,000 deaths – it’s still too high,” he said. 

 

Noting that just 13% of the eligible population has gotten the updated bivalent booster, he urged community members to go get their next dose. 

 

“There’s no reason for anybody to die from COVID with the vaccines that we have and the drugs that we have to treat people,” Fauci said. “We’ve got to get the community to appreciate how important it is to protect yourselves, your family and your entire community by getting vaccinated.”

 

Members of your family or community may also include those who are immunocompromised, like someone undergoing cancer treatment. Fauci sought to correct a misimpression that if people are immunocompromised, they shouldn’t get vaccinated. 

 

“That’s a big mistake – that’s exactly the reason why you should get vaccinated, even though your response may not be as robust as someone who’s immune competent,” Fauci said.

 

With recommendations changing on how often and when people should get booster shots, Haynes asked about if this has led to confusion or fatigue. While the durability of protection with the COVID-19 booster is measured in months to a year, Fauci acknowledged the likelihood of a shift to an annual shot because “it’s an orderly cadence people can understand.” The vaccine is different from other types of immunizations, like measles which offers protection that is measured at a minimum of decades. 

 

Taking a look back at his tenure at NAIAD, Fauci has overseen many infectious disease events, including HIV, Ebola and SARS. In his leadership role, Fauci was also at the forefront of incorporating diversity, equity and inclusion into clinical trials and working to make them more equitable and accessible. When asked by the moderators what he sees as his most impactful project, Fauci highlighted his time working on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Africa (PEPFAR) under the Bush Administration. 

 

“President [George W.] Bush felt strongly that if there are countries in the world with poor resources who don’t have the capability of saving their lives by getting drugs, prevention and care that we have a moral obligation to help them with that,” Fauci said. “The PEPFAR program has saved more than 20 million lives—that’s the thing I feel most proud and happy about.”

 

Throughout the program, speakers referenced the rise of misinformation and distrust in the medical field. Fauci emphasized the important role medical professionals and providers play in combating misinformation and providing facts to the community. 

 

“We have to continue as scientists, health care providers and public health officials to be out there and consistently coming out with evidence-based, data-based and fact-based information and guidelines,” Fauci said. “Misinformation and disinformation is rampant… We have got to be out there, all of us, actively spreading the truth and be consistent in what we say based on data, otherwise the disinformation is going to win out.”

 

Winn closed out the program giving thanks to Fauci for his service. Fauci will be stepping down from the NIAID and his role as the White House’s chief medical advisor later this month. 

 

“This belief and the courage you had to stand by science has actually stiffened the backbones of other scientists and health professionals around the country to know that the science is something we have to validate and trust, and that we can bring the science closer to our communities,” Winn said.

 

A version of this story was originally published by the VCU Massey Cancer Center’s News Center

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