More than 1,000 health officials came to the aid of Dr. Anthony Fauci after a White House official published an op-ed trying to discredit the nation’s top health expert who has helped steer the country through the coronavirus pandemic so far.
Peter Navarro, an assistant to the president and a director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, wrote an op-ed in USA Today criticizing Fauci. The op-ed said Fauci has “been wrong on everything” that Navarro has interacted with him on.
Thousands of doctors are now ridiculing Navarro’s claims and responding with a broad defense of Fauci, who has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.
Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, told BuzzFeed News that White House aides trying to discredit Fauci only hurts the Trump administration.
"First of all, the people speaking out against Tony Fauci have absolutely no medical credibility, no public health credibility, and frankly, no policy credibility when it comes to any kind of disaster or situation involving human health,” Benjamin told BuzzFeed News. "They are undermining not just Fauci but everyone in the administration. You cannot have a competent public health response without a clear communication strategy. This isn't it."
Benjamin also spoke to Navarro’s assertion of Fauci “flip-flopping on the use of masks.” In the first months of the pandemic, US public health officials who were worried about shortages discouraged the use of surgical masks for everyone but medical personnel. But in April, the guidance switched to encouraging cloth masks for everyone after evidence emerged that face coverings lowered the risk of infected people transmitting COVID-19.
"The reason Tony has changed his outlook on the virus is that we’ve learned more about it, obviously. I wouldn't say all the same things now I said in the first months,” said Benjamin. “We learn and we change what we do. That is how infectious diseases work."
Fauci, in an unusually explicit public defense of his work and dig at those attacking him, told the Atlantic on Wednesday that the attempts to undermine him are “bizarre.”
“I think if you talk to reasonable people in the White House, they realize that was a major mistake on their part because it doesn’t do anything but reflect poorly on them,” Fauci said. He added: “I can’t explain Peter Navarro. He’s in a world by himself.”
Navarro, an economist best known for promoting his protectionist views on trade with China far removed from those of most trade experts, has also emerged as a fierce advocate of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. The FDA pulled its emergency authorization of the drug last month after studies showed it offered patients no benefits and raised the risks of heart arrhythmia.
Benjamin is joined by thousands of other doctors in publicly defending Fauci. The Infectious Diseases Society of America released a statement Wednesday speaking on behalf of its 12,000 medical doctors, research scientists, and public health experts, saying they won’t be “sidelined” and calling the campaign to discredit Fauci “disturbing.”
“Despite the nation’s vast resources and abilities, more than 135,000 people in America have died from COVID-19 - more than any other country, and the numbers keep rising," the statement read. "Every day now brings a new high in the number of newly infected people and deaths. This is a full-blown crisis, unlike any America has ever faced, and it needs to be treated as such.”
The statement added, “If we have any hope of ending this crisis, all of America must support public health experts, including Dr. Fauci, and stand with science.”
Fauci, known before the coronavirus pandemic for his work leading the charge to research treatments during the AIDS epidemic, also has the backing of the HIV Medicine Association, an organization representing the interests of medical professionals who practice HIV medicine.
In a statement, the organization said Fauci’s “leadership and support of a rigorous scientific process has been critical to transforming HIV from a death sentence to a chronic condition, saving millions of lives worldwide. His voice and expertise need to be amplified not silenced if we are going to get control of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now taken the lives of more than 135,000 Americans and more than 570,000 people worldwide.”
The American Society for Microbiology also wrote a letter Tuesday to Vice President Mike Pence expressing its support for Fauci and other health officials “prioritizing science-based public health strategies to address the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In a separate statement to BuzzFeed News, Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, called the "blatant attempts to discredit" Fauci "dismaying."
"Misleading attacks on Dr. Fauci’s credibility could have real consequences in prolonging this pandemic," he said.
During an unrelated White House event on Wednesday, President Donald Trump skirted questions on whether he’s OK with Navarro’s op-ed; he just described the nature of his relationship with Dr. Fauci.
“I get along very well with Dr. Fauci," Trump said. When pressed on the question again, “That’s Peter Navarro, but I have a very good relationship with Dr. Fauci.” Later, the president told reporters that Navarro made a statement “representing himself. He shouldn’t be doing that.”
But leading up to the op-ed, the White House sidelined Fauci when it issued a statement to the Washington Post on Saturday that said “several ... officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things.”
Others close to the president have also pushed messages discrediting Fauci over the last several days, including longtime Trump adviser Dan Scavino, who posted on Facebook a cartoon ridiculing the health expert and accusing him of using the media to bring the economy to a halt. The piece was titled “Dr. Faucet.”