- Dr. Anthony Fauci said in June 2019 that his nightmare public-health scenario was a “respiratory illness that easily spreads and has a high degree of morbidity and some degree of mortality.”
- Less than six months later, the novel coronavirus emerged on epidemiologists’ radar in Wuhan, China.
- Now Fauci says he’s “so sorry” that he was “so prescient.”
- Better public-health surveillance systems in the US would go a long way toward curbing the next infectious-disease outbreak.
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Dr. Anthony Fauci has been America’s top infectious-disease expert for 36 years. That’s how long he’s run the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
So it’s not a surprise that he has been saying for a while that the prospect of a new contagious infectious disease — like the novel coronavirus — is something that worries him most.
Take what he told Steve Clemons, The Hill’s editor at large, in June 2019 during the publication’s first Future of Healthcare Summit, when he was asked about his nightmare public-health scenarios.
“As an infectious-disease public-health person — I mean, there are a lot of other things in society that I worry about, but you don’t want my opinion of that; let’s talk about infectious diseases — is a respiratory-borne illness, that spreads rapidly, that’s new — mainly there’s no background immunity in the population. And that almost always turns out to be a brand-new pandemic influenza,” Fauci said.
He added: “I do worry about that because when you have a respiratory illness that easily spreads, and has a high degree of morbidity and some degree of mortality, you could have a public-health catastrophe.”
That’s a spot-on prediction (aside from the influenza part), and Fauci feels bad about how right he was.
“I’m so sorry that I was so prescient when we had our last interview, Steve. I really am very sorry about that,” Fauci said during this year’s edition of The Hill’s healthcare summit on Thursday. “When we had our conversation last year, I said this is what I would be most worried about. I’m so sorry that it occurred, and occurred so quickly after that interview.”
Fauci is not the only one who’s been raising this kind of alarm. Bill Gates has similarly said that the world needs to prepare for pandemic disease outbreaks in the same serious way as armies prepare for war. Still, the US has whittled away its pandemic public health response capabilities at every level over the past decade.
“Even as we’re getting through this, and there’ll be many, many lessons learned, we’ve got to for the future, make sure that we don’t lose this corporate memory of what we’re going through because we need, obviously, to be better prepared,” Fauci said.
The best way to get better prepared for the next pandemic is to take a pragmatic, systematic approach, Fauci has said.
“You don’t want to frighten society and say, ‘At any given moment, something is going to come in and destroy society’ Because when you hear that over and over again … people get inured to that, and they say, ‘Well, you’re just trying to frighten us,'” Fauci said last year. “The way you prepare for an outbreak is to preemptively put in place the scientific and public-health capabilities to respond. Don’t try to guess what the next outbreak is because you’re almost always gonna guess wrong. Try to put a fundamental system in place of surveillance.”