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Anthony Fauci is stepping down: How did he become the bogeyman of covid-19 conspiracy theories?

Fauci was criticized for his AIDS response. The covid attacks are a different beast all together and spell trouble for the future of public health.

Anthony Fauci’s announcement this week that he plans to retire from government service after nearly a half-century has unleashed a new wave of vitriol on the right. “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday.

In some ways, the nation’s capacity to respond to public health threats through collective action is weaker than when Fauci began his career. “The operating environment for public health has changed dramatically,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

It’s primarily motivated by weaponized anti-science politics, said Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at Baylor College of Medicine.

“In this time of covid, opposition to science-driven interventions has been full-on adopted by the far right, adopted by the House Freedom Caucus and amplified nightly on Fox News and given an academic cover by a recruited cadre of contrarian intellectuals,” Hotez said. “It’s an anti-science political ecosystem that has shaped the far right.”

Experience during the AIDS crisis

Fauci began studying HIV and AIDS in the early 1980s, before the illness then primarily affecting gay men had a name. In 1983, his lab at the National Institutes of Health was the first to show that immune cells in patients with HIV became hyperactive. He spent the next several years continuing to plug away at the scientific problem of understanding this mysterious disease, both from his own lab and from NIAID, which he began leading in 1984.

But that slow scientific work frustrated and enraged activists, many of whom came from the LGBTQ community. “These activists were impatient because their friends were dying,” said James Curran, an epidemiologist at Emory University who led the AIDS response team for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “People like Tony and I were part of that criticism because we were the most visible people,” he said. “Reagan didn’t say a word in public [about AIDS] until 1987, so they had to go after the people who are out there.”

“AIDS activists were frustrated and confrontational because, quite frankly, the government and resource allocators weren’t paying attention,” said Benjamin. Activists wanted easier access to drugs that hadn’t yet made it through the Food and Drug Administration’s lengthy approval process. As head of NIAID, Fauci wasn’t in charge of drug regulation.

But instead of blocking out the protests, he listened.

“He taught us all to listen more than talk, to find out what people’s concerns are and find ways to address them in a collaborative manner,” Benjamin said. In no small part because of Fauci’s leadership, community-based participatory research has become the norm now, he added: “That doesn’t mean we do it well all the time, but communities expect us to engage them.”

Fauci’s experience during the AIDS crisis helped shape his future leadership. “I think undeniably Tony learned from the AIDS crisis hugely,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. “For lots of people, the AIDS crisis would have been the end of their career, but Tony was able to navigate that and learned how to address complicated, controversial situations and listen to people.”

A rise in conspiracy thinking and politicization around public health

“It’s trite to say that [public health] has become politicized,” Hotez said. “You have a whole anti-science empire as a full-on component of the political right. Proud Boys and Oathkeepers are marching at anti-vaccine rallies,” he said. “That’s what’s new.”

On Monday, the day Fauci announced his intention to retire, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson alleged, falsely, that Fauci “apparently engineered the single most devastating event in modern American history.”

QAnon adherents have linked Fauci to some or all of those related theories. They blamed Fauci for a so-called plandemic and insisted that masks, used to hamper transmission, were actually a tool to disguise child sex trafficking. Some corners of that community believe Fauci personally unleashed not only covid but AIDS and certain cancers and will one day be brought before a Nuremberg-style investigative commission.

There’s a clear difference between these generations of anti-Fauci sentiment, Steve Sternberg, a public health investigative journalist who covered AIDS and Fauci for decades, told Grid in an email.

During the height of the AIDS crisis, Sternberg recalled, activists blamed Fauci for the deaths of their loved ones. But eventually they saw in him a partner in drawing attention to the virus’ devastating effects. This led to “what I think was a unique collaboration between science, government, civil society and the news media,” in the form of international conferences to share research into the medical, social and cultural dimensions of AIDS, said Sternberg.

By contrast, Sternberg said, many politicians today continue to deny covid’s ravages, and no such global covid summit exists.

In some ways, the covid pandemic inverted the demands of AIDS activists — the loudest voices politicizing the science behind covid are those demanding the government do less, not more. “People tied their allegiance to this thing by not getting vaccinated, or believing that covid-19 was either, first, a hoax or genetically engineered by Dr. Fauci and others,” Hotez said.

Beyond Fauci

Sternberg said those types of attacks aren’t comparable to the intense scrutiny placed on health officials during the AIDS crisis.

“Government agencies should be scrutinized. Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is spent,” he said. “Character assassination is not scrutiny; unfounded accusations are not scrutiny. They’re the opposite of scrutiny. Scrutiny yields, or should yield, facts. I’ve never seen this much hate and vitriol directed at public servants who are trying to do their jobs.”

It’s not unusual for medical conspiracies to become integrated with other, political, conspiracies, said Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. Covid provided a convenient tool with which to push election-related conspiracy theories, for example, with Fauci as the face of this all-powerful hoax.

“In that thread of American history, there’s always been this integration between medical conspiracy — believed to be an institution of control — and political conspiracy, in connecting these things together,” he said.

But those conspiratorial threads — such as panic over water fluoridation during the Red Scare — were often found on the political fringes. In recent years, those connected streams of misinformation also moved toward the political mainstream.

Leveraging covid misinformation offered a political mainstream among far-right elected officials, said Hotez. Fauci offered them a convenient scapegoat: a public enemy through which some political and media figures could “cultivate allegiance in a group.”

Some of those same politicians have said that, after he leaves office, they’ll investigate him. It remains to be seen whether public interest — or political opportunity — will remain on Fauci after he’s no longer in the spotlight. But the experts who have watched Fauci’s four-decade career as the face of public health responses don’t think that his departure will end the anti-science climate that marked his final years on the job. Public health officials still face harassment. Scientific institutions are discredited and defunded.

“We need to start figuring out a way to uncouple anti-science from the GOP and far-right extremism,” Hotez said. Part of that may be training a more diverse set of scientists to be better communicators and connect with different communities, including on the far right, he said.

“Because if we don’t,” he said, “it’s not only going to have public health consequences, but our ability to be a great nation is going to suffer as well.”

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