Several days after President Joe Biden declared that “the pandemic is over,” Anthony Fauci weighed in on the president’s controversial remarks during an interview at The Atlantic Festival, an annual live event in Washington, D.C.
“He was saying we’re in a much better place with regard to the fulminant stage of the pandemic,” Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, said. “It really becomes semantics and about how you want to spin it.”
By “the fulminant stage,” he meant the phase of the coronavirus pandemic during which we saw sudden, unpredictable spikes in disease and death. Thanks in large part to vaccines and antivirals, Fauci explained, we are now in a new phase, one in which even as case counts and hospitalization numbers fluctuate, death tolls hold fairly constant. The United States is no longer seeing thousands of deaths a day, and for many Americans, the risk of serious illness has declined dramatically.
Still, the idea that declaring the pandemic over is truly a matter of semantics is a fraught message coming from the nation’s top public-health communicator. Especially during the rollout of the country’s first Omicron-specific boosters, some experts and insiders worry that the declaration could have real consequences: Six administration officials told The Washington Post that the president’s comments would likely make the tasks of persuading Americans to get shots and securing funding from Congress even more challenging than they already were.
Watch: Atlantic deputy editor Ross Andersen in conversation with Anthony Fauci
Fauci is not the only administration official who has walked back the president’s remarks, which came just a few days after Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, said, “We are not there yet, but the end is in sight.” According to Politico, Biden’s remarks caught senior administration health officials off guard, and indeed, in the following days, the White House clarified that the president was referring to public sentiment, not epidemiological reality. “The president,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told Yahoo Finance, “was reflecting what so many Americans are thinking and feeling.” (In today’s interview, Fauci built on Ghebreyesus’s sentiment with a trademark Fauci-ism: Easing up on our efforts to fight the pandemic now, he said, would be like saying, “Just because I see what the finish line is, I’m gonna stop and get a hot dog. No, you don’t want to do that.”)
Fauci himself is no stranger to the delicate art of discussing the pandemic’s end. In a late-April interview with PBS NewsHour, he said that the United States was “out of the pandemic phase,” only to reverse course the next day and say that the country (along with the entire world) was “still experiencing a pandemic.” Last month, when he announced that he would step down from his government position by the year’s end, Fauci said that he was not satisfied with this state of affairs. “I’m not happy about the fact that we still have 400 deaths per day,” he said. “We need to do much better than that … But I hope that over the next couple of months, things will improve.”
So far, they have not. Statistically speaking, not a whole lot has changed since last month—or, for that matter, since late April: Average daily cases, which Fauci acknowledged are an underestimate, are up slightly, from about 50,000 to just under 60,000. The numbers of people hospitalized and in ICUs rose to a peak in late July and have slowly declined since. Death tolls have held fairly constant, as Fauci said, at about 400 a day. And modelers think they may remain there for a while yet. “I’ll say it even today,” Fauci repeated. “Four hundred deaths per day is not an acceptable number as far as I’m concerned.”
Meanwhile, America has done away with nearly all of its pandemic precautions, and Congress has declined to renew funding for vaccines and therapeutics. Whether or not the pandemic really is behind us, many people are living as if it is. An Axios/Ipsos poll released last week found that nearly half of Americans have returned to their pre-COVID lives, and 66 percent only occasionally or never wear a mask in public indoor spaces—by far the highest percentage that has given that answer since pollsters first posed the question in May 2021.
In his wide-ranging interview at The Atlantic Festival, Fauci touched on a number of other topics, including his decades of work on the HIV/AIDS crisis, the politicization of public health, and how during the pandemic he’s become something of a larger-than-life figure—to both those who adore him and those who despise him. He laughed about the Dr. Fauci–themed candles, bobbleheads, and other paraphernalia that are sent to him. “That is as unrealistic in many respects as the craziness of people who want to decapitate me because I’m ruining the economy,” he said.
Fauci also addressed the origins of the coronavirus, repeating his oft-cited position that while he keeps an open mind to theories that the virus leaked out of a lab in Wuhan, China, evidence points toward natural spillover from animals in a market in the city. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever get definitive proof in either direction, he said, but one thing that would help is greater transparency from the Chinese government, beginning with answers to the question of what exactly happened at the Wuhan wet market to which some of the earliest COVID cases have been traced.
“The thing I think would be the best thing to do would be to open up those markets,” which are now closed to investigation, Fauci said. “If we were able to go and do surveillance easily in China, we would get a lot more information than we have now.”