At Cornell – where aggressive COVID-19 testing and safety precautions have driven the positivity rate to 0.01% for the week ending Oct. 4 – “you’re doing it right,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, M.D. ’66, during an Oct. 6 virtual conversation with NBC News journalist Kate Snow ’91 as part of StayHomecoming 2020.
“You’re showing that it can be done with a group of students who have the same interest and desire to have fun at the same time that you’re getting your education,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, in a 45-minute discussion that ranged from President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis to Fauci’s experience battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
“Cornell is a highly respected institution,” he said. “If you could show that you can do it, it would be a great example of what can be accomplished.”
Amid worrisome signs of a national uptick in COVID-19 cases, including in parts of New York state, Fauci told Snow that “it is within our grasp to turn that around” this fall and winter if we adhere to guidelines including wearing masks and avoiding crowds.
These efforts, he said, can help keep the virus in check until an effective vaccine is identified – possibly this month but more likely by November or December.
“You never know if you have a safe and effective vaccine unless you finish and do the clinical trial,” Fauci said. “But from the data that I’ve seen from animal studies, and from phase-one studies that have looked at individuals who received the vaccine, that the response they get is a robust neutralizing antibody response that’s comparable to what you get with natural infection.
“Therefore, I feel cautiously optimistic,” he said, “that we will have a safe and effective vaccine that will be able to be distributed by the end of this year or by the beginning of next year.”
Nearly 3,600 Cornellians tuned into the online discussion, which was introduced by President Martha E. Pollack and included questions from students at Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell Tech and the Ithaca campus.
Snow asked Fauci several questions related to Trump, including the president’s statement that COVID-19 is basically the same as influenza and Trump’s resistance to masks. While declining to contradict the president, Fauci reiterated the importance of mask-wearing and social distancing, and emphasized the severity of coronavirus, which has some similar symptoms to influenza but is far more deadly.
“I have a job to do. And my personally contradicting the president of the United States publicly is not a good thing if I want to get my job done. But I can somehow answer your question by saying the following, by repeating what I say all the time,” Fauci said. “There are some things that should be universally practiced. And that is the universal wearing of masks, avoiding crowds, keeping a distance, doing things outdoors more than indoors, and washing your hands frequently. That doesn’t matter who you are. That’s what you should be doing.”
Asked about his journey from Cornell to NIAID, which he’s led since 1984, Fauci said he originally expected to spend his career practicing medicine in New York City. The emergence of HIV, he said – at the time a mysterious ailment afflicting a handful of gay men – set him on a different path.
“There was something about the mystery of that disease that attracted me,” he said. “And I threw all my effort into it.”
Fauci said he has never doubted his leadership – though others have, particularly during the AIDS crisis, because of his then-controversial cooperation with activists.
“We needed to listen, because what they were saying really made sense, about the rigidity of the scientific process and the rigidity of the regulatory process and a disease that we had no other experience with,” he said. “My own staff then began to question whether that was the right thing. They thought it would contaminate the science. As it turned out, it absolutely enriched the science by getting opinions of the community into your deliberations.”
Fauci said a global pandemic is what he has feared for most of his career.
“What used to keep me up at night is what I’m doing now,” he said. “We have my perfect nightmare. Namely, a pandemic that has already killed a million people worldwide and is still raging throughout the world.”
The current rate of 40,000 to 45,000 new infections per day across the United States is too high, especially as life moves indoors with the colder weather, he said.
“As a physician, and a physician-scientist, I am very cognizant of people getting sick and people dying,” he said. “That’s real stuff to me. That’s not a statistic. So it doesn’t worry me, but it does give me more energy to say we’ve got to get a vaccine, we’ve got to get drugs. And we’ve got to get people to listen to us when we say what the public health measures are that we need to follow.”
Despite the challenges, Fauci said, there is cause for optimism.
“What gives me great hope, I think, is my confidence in the scientific process, and that we will get interventions and they’re not so far away … and when we combine those interventions with a modest amount of public health measures, we will ultimately return to normal,” he said. “This will end.”