WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared Tuesday at his final White House press briefing, as he prepares to leave government next month following a half-century on the front lines of the world’s gravest public health crises.
“The idea that this may be very likely the last time I’m in that press briefing room is kind of sad. Sad, and yet with the full realization and appreciation that all things must pass. Things can’t go on forever,” Fauci said in an interview earlier in the day with NBC News.
Speaking at the briefing, Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said “the final message I give you from this podium is that please, for your own safety, for that of your family, get your updated Covid-19 shot as soon as you’re eligible.”
Fauci, 81, has directed the institute since 1984, a position bookended by the AIDS outbreak and the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than one million Americans.
He became a household name for his work on then-President Donald Trump’s Covid task force, appearing regularly in the briefing room for on-camera updates about the virus where he often pushed back against Trump’s false claims about the disease.
His plain-spoken warnings about the virus — at odds with Trump’s more upbeat message at the time — made him something of a pop cultural sensation, with Fauci bobblehead dolls popping up and actors Brad Pitt and Kate McKinnon taking turns portraying him in Saturday Night Live skits.
As the pandemic progressed, Fauci’s relationship with Trump soured and their back-and-forth disagreements — ranging from the severity of the virus to the best way to treat it — often spilled into public view.
Before he announced his plans to leave government, Fauci said he would not serve under another Trump administration.
A bookish, behind-the-scenes figure for much of his career, Fauci became a target of right-wing attacks for his willingness to contradict Trump and his recommendations that lockdowns were necessary to curb the virus’s spread.
He began traveling with government security agents as death threats and verbal abuse mounted. In his NBC interview, Fauci alluded to how his life has been upended. He declined to compare Trump and Biden — two of the seven presidents he’s advised in the course of his career.
“I’d prefer not to get into that,” he said. “The attacks and blowback I get are just not worth it.”
Still, he made clear that he relished his time advising Biden, who he said is “completely in favor of sticking with the science, sticking with the facts, and not blaming anything but just going ahead and doing it.”
Republicans gained control of the U.S. House in the midterm elections and plan to summon Fauci to testify about his role in combatting the pandemic in the new year.
Fauci said he would be willing to appear and face what is certain to be hostile questioning.
“I have a great deal of respect for the concept of oversight — legitimate oversight — and I have no problem testifying before the Congress,” he said. “I can explain and defend everything I’ve done and I have absolutely nothing to hide.”
At the press briefing, he was asked to reflect on the course of the virus and said that he did not imagine that the U.S. would see “a three-year saga of suffering and death in a million Americans losing their lives.”
“The thing that was most disturbing … was the continuation of multiple variants evolving over time,” Fauci said.
Fauci said that he eventually expects the virus to reach low levels in the U.S., but the speed at which the country reaches that point depends on how many people continue to get vaccinated, as well as how many people get an updated booster shot.
“We can get there with less suffering if we use the interventions that we have,” Fauci said. “If you want to let nature take its course, we’re ultimately going to get there but we’re going to loose a lot more people than we need to.”
Fauci does not plan to retire. He told NBC News he is considering various paths that include working in academia, a foundation, or possibly on his own. He said it is “highly likely” he will write a book. But in a departure from so many government officials-turned authors in the post-Trump era, he added it wouldn’t be a tell-all.
“What I would like to do is encourage and perhaps inspire younger people to get involved in science, medicine and public health,” Fauci said. “There’s a danger of an anti-science movement, and I would hope that I would be able to serve as a bit of encouragement and inspiration to younger people.”