In an alarming report issued on September 18, the Centers for Disease Control released a significant new guidance claiming that coronavirus droplets can remain suspended in the air to be later breathed in by others in indoor restaurants, classrooms, and businesses. Worse, the CDC claimed, the airborne particles can travel distances far beyond six feet—infecting entire indoor environments without good ventilation.
Three days later, the CDC withdrew the advice, saying only that “it had been posted in error” on the agency’s website.
For nearly four decades, the researchers at the CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have been regarded as heroes because of their commitment to public health and welfare. Fauci’s leadership in the early days of COVID-19 pandemic was laudable—inspiring confidence that the 15 days to “flatten the curve” would save lives by protecting hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
In fact, much of Fauci’s work and the work of the CDC truly has been heroic. In 1988, when then-Vice President George H. W. Bush was asked during the October 13 presidential debate to name a personal hero, he named Fauci. And when President George W. Bush awarded Fauci the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, he reminded us that when AIDS, a “mysterious and terrifying plague began to take the lives of people across the world . . . it had a fierce opponent in Dr. Anthony Fauci.”
As Randy Shilts’ 1987 book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, points out, Fauci was an early hero in his early days as an AIDS clinician at the National Institutes of Health Hospital. But Shilts also devotes several pages of his book to what he saw as a recurring problem with Fauci: that the hero in the AIDS fight was also a political player who was willing to distort research data to try to shape policy in the ways he thought it needed to be shaped.
On May 5, 1983—contrary to all of the research data at the time—Fauci published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association stating AIDS was transmissible by “routine close contact.” Claiming that children could catch the deadly disease of AIDS from their families, Fauci wrote that if routine personal contact among family members in a household is enough to spread the illness, “then AIDS takes on an entirely new dimension.”
Fauci’s 1983 editorial opened the floodgates of fear about AIDS. According to Michael Fumento’s The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, Fauci’s article moved AIDS from being “perceived as a gay disease to a ‘media event.’” Fumento’s review of media coverage via the computerized bibliographic news service Nexis revealed that during the second and third quarters of 1983, AIDS news coverage quadrupled to about 700 articles each quarter. And although reassurances were given to contradict Fauci’s felonious statements on the “casual contact” contention, the idea that “anyone” was vulnerable to contracting AIDS continued for quite a while.
As Fumento wrote, “what really appeals to editors is raising the specter that AIDS is about to break out of major risk groups . . . If previously healthy straights were getting a fatal disease for which there was no cure and the number of cases was doubling every seven or eight months or so, the story would be in the papers every day.”
Refusing to take any responsibility for the panicked response, Fauci blamed a “hysterical media” for taking his comments out of context. According to Shilts, Fauci had said,
only that the possibility of household transmission might raise all these scientific implications. The lay public did not understand the language of science, he pleaded. Science always dealt with hypotheticals; this did not mean he was saying that AIDS actually was spread through household contact. Moreover, the chief villain, he would accurately note, was the press office of the American Medical Association which had so shamefully sensationalized the journal article in an effort to draw attention to a journal that always found itself playing second fiddle to Science and the New England Journal of Medicine.
No matter who was to blame, Fauci’s warnings about casual contact causing AIDS set in motion a wave of hysteria; it also set in motion a wave of government and private funding for research for a cure.
The New York Times and USA Today ran Fauci’s flawed press release as did most newspapers in the United States as heterosexuals began to believe that they, too, were vulnerable. The media warned that heterosexuals “just like you and me” with no risk factors other than heterosexual intercourse could spread AIDS. Claiming that in 1986, the proportion of heterosexual transmission cases had doubled in one year from 2 percent to 4 percent of all cases, Fumento pointed out that the media neglected to ask the “hard questions” about the real data.
Distortions of Data Then and Now
Blaming the CDC for distorting the numbers of heterosexual cases, Fumento wrote: “nobody was seeing these additional cases, to be sure but they existed on paper, with the trail of paper leading right back to the doors of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.”
What the media did not tell us about these percentages was that the CDC had included AIDS cases discovered among new arrivals to the United States from Africa and Haiti who were classified as “undetermined” sexual orientation when they were diagnosed. The CDC later acknowledged that “it was probably an omission” to fail to state that the undetermined were lumped in with the heterosexuals in compiling the data on new AIDS cases: “It should have been put in there, but if somebody called we’d set them straight.”
The distortions of data continue today. Although the threat of contracting the coronavirus that can lead to COVID-19 is very real for all of us, he rarely mentions that more than 80 percent of all deaths from the disease are among the elderly. Healthy young people are much more likely to have mild cases of the virus as even the CDC acknowledges that the vast majority of all COVID-19 patients—young and old—requiring hospitalization had at least one underlying health condition or risk factor, as did those requiring intensive care. Men are significantly more likely to die of COVID-19 than women but no one seems to worry about that.
According to the most recent data, children ages 0 to 19 have a .02 percent risk of dying if infected by the coronavirus. There are almost no cases of the virus causing problems in children under age 10.
Yet, channeling his 1983 JAMA warnings, Fauci advised Congress in July that in some parts of the country, “schools should remain closed in the fall.” Claiming that if states reopen before meeting the criteria set out by the Trump administration, they risk reprisals of the outbreak, Fauci continues today to move the goalposts in reopening the country.
President Trump was correct when he criticized the CDC for demanding schools do “very impractical things” to prepare to reopen. The president is also correct when he says that Fauci “wants to play all sides of the equation.”
A politician first, Fauci has always played all sides of the equation because he knows that inspiring fear will always drive public policy in the direction he wants it to go. Some lives may be saved—but many more lives may be lost by continuing to keep children locked out of schools, parents locked out of work, and businesses closed.