Fauci visits Fred Hutch, discusses pandemics, vaccines and scientific misinformation

NIAID director’s determined spirit recognized with honorary Hutch Award
Drs. Larry Corey and Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci (right), chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, talks about pandemics, from HIV to Covid-19, with his friend and frequent collaborator, Fred Hutch virologist Dr. Larry Corey, at special event on the Hutch campus honoring Fauci on Aug. 9, 2022. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Anthony Fauci came to Seattle on Tuesday to visit old friends, reminisce and accept an honorary award from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

In an appearance before a live audience on the Hutch campus, Fauci sat down with renowned virologist and President and Director Emeritus Dr. Larry Corey to discuss their remarkable friendship and collaborations on pandemic research spanning nearly four decades.

The day was capped by an evening at T-Mobile Park, where Fauci delivered a ceremonial first pitch to Seattle Mariners’ manager Scott Servais and received an honorary 2022 Hutch Award. Usually given to ballplayers, the award recognizes the determined spirit of Fred Hutchinson, the Seattle sports legend who died of cancer in 1964 and for whom the cancer center is named.

“We could not be more proud to recognize Dr. Fauci’s contributions and impact on society and the world with this special Hutch Award,” said Dr. Thomas J. Lynch Jr., president and director of Fred Hutch and holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair.

Fauci has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984 and is currently chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden. Although widely known in the medical community, he emerged during the first tempestuous months of COVID-19 as the trusted provider of candid, intelligent — and not always reassuring — advice to millions of Americans about the gravity of the pandemic.

In his conversations with Corey, it became clear that Fauci had earned his credibility as a spokesman for science in the COVID-19 crisis by virtue of the work he began over 40 years ago, with the emergence of another pandemic virus, HIV.

As a rising young researcher at NIAID in the early 1980’s, Fauci essentially pivoted all his work to what became known as HIV/AIDS as soon as it became apparent to him that a previously unknown virus was causing the mysterious disease killing gay men by destroying their immune system.

“Everybody thought I was crazy,” Fauci recalled. “My mentors told me I was making a big career mistake.”

Dr. Fauci responeding to cheers from fans at the Mariners Yankee game
Fauci, who threw a ceremonial first pitch before the start of a Mariners game hosting the Yankees, acknowleges cheers from fans during a third-inning break at T-Mobile Park. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Fauci explained how over the years, he worked to shift money within NIAID to cover AIDS research. When he needed to build a clinical trials network to test the new drugs that eventually were to turn HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable disease, he turned to Corey, who was experienced in the design of antiviral clinical trials dating back to his work on the development of the first antiviral drug for herpes, acyclovir.

In the decade after the development of effective HIV/AIDS drugs, Fauci’s attention turned to addressing the unmet need for such medications in Africa and in developing countries where case numbers were dwarfing anything that had been seen in the U.S.

Fauci recounted how President George W. Bush put him in charge of designing a program called PEPFAR — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — that since its launch in 2003 has invested more than $100 billion in bringing low-cost drugs to developing countries and saved an estimated 21 million lives.

Fauci told Corey that he had originally hoped to persuade President Bush to support a $500 million program to reduce the transmission of HIV from mother to child, but Bush told him, “This is not enough, go back and give me something that’s totally transforming.”

“I told him, ‘Mr. President, this could cost billions and billions of dollars.’ And he told me, ‘Let me worry about the money,’” Fauci said.

Bush inserted, without telling the press or Congress, a line into his 2003 State of the Union address calling for a five-year, $15 billion commitment, and the rest is history.

“I say this with all sincerity,” Fauci said. “The credit all goes to George W. Bush. It would not have happened if he didn’t say he was totally committed to doing it. This is a side of him that most people don’t appreciate.”

Corey summed up the effort: “I think it has saved more lives than any other program in the history of mankind.”

A focus on developing an HIV/AIDS vaccine

Even before PEPFAR was developed and launched, Fauci’s relationship with Corey deepened with the establishment of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, or HVTN, the largest publicly funded international collaboration focused on evaluating HIV/AIDS vaccines. Based at Fred Hutch, it has carried out dozens of clinical trials, large and small, on potential vaccines and components for two decades.

Although an effective vaccine remains elusive, the program continues to refine the science behind the immune response to HIV and the design of vaccine strategies that can elicit broadly neutralizing antibodies of the sort researchers believe will ultimately be able to prevent HIV infections.

HVTN established not only an international network of clinical vaccine trial sites, but a model of community involvement in the design of such trials as well. When it became apparent within months of the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 that a vaccine was both essential and possible, Fauci worked with Corey and others, with the HVTN model in mind, to develop a framework for conducting massive clinical trials.

The effort made possible — within the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed — the clinical trials that brought effective vaccinations against COVID-19 by the end of 2020.

While that success has been gratifying, Fauci still expresses bafflement at the hesitancy of many Americans to avail themselves of vaccination against SARS-CoV-2.

“When you have a disease that has killed one million Americans,” Fauci said to Corey, “and you have hesitancy to use a lifesaving intervention — which is a vaccine and a booster — it seems like, ‘What world are we living in?’ … It’s almost inexplicable.”

Fauci predicted that new booster shots would be available from Pfizer by the middle of September, with a similar booster from Moderna by late September or early October. Yet he is alarmed that vaccination rates are lagging, while the virus continues to change.

Fauci was blunt that misinformation is eroding trust in scientists and the work they do.

“Some people don’t want to get vaccinated because they don’t have enough information about it, and it’s not that they are inherently anti-vax. For others it’s because so much misinformation is thrown at them, and they don’t have good, trusted messengers to give them the right information. And then there are others that are just hard core, and there is nothing you’re going to change their minds,” he said.

Fauci said that he has had opportunities to deliver commencement addresses earlier this summer, and the core message he wanted to give young people is “Don’t accept the normalization of untruths.”

“There’s so much preposterous lying going on,” he said, “… and when people who have a lot of other things going on in their lives they have to worry about, they kind of start accepting it, and all of sudden lying becomes normal… Don’t accept as normal flagrant distortions of truth and reality, because once you do that, nothing counts.”

Drs. Fauci and Cory talk to high school students
Drs. Fauci and Corey talk up careers in medical science to high school students participating in summer internship programs at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

After the close of the discussion, Fauci and Corey dropped in on a group of high school students attending the Hutch’s Summer High School Internship Program for seniors and High School Explorers Program for rising 10th and 11th graders.

Asked about the “Fauci effect,” an increase in student interest in medical science and public health said to be driven by Fauci’s example during the COVID-19 pandemic, Fauci said, “I don’t think I’m a big deal because people call it the Fauci effect, but I think it is very good testimony to the importance of science. If people see something that they feel is important that they want to emulate, and they go into science because of it, that’s a good thing.”

The day was capped by an evening at T-Mobile Park, where Fauci — wearing the home team’s jersey with his name emblazoned on the back — delivered a ceremonial first pitch to Seattle Mariners’ manager Scott Servais and received the honorary 2022 Hutch Award.

President Jimmy Carter, who survived melanoma in 2015, became the first and only other person who is not a ballplayer to receive an honorary Hutch Award the following year.

In a touching and seemingly unscripted moment, Servais — who was sidelined by COVID-19 in April — pulled a mask from his pocket and asked Fauci to autograph it, and then he autographed a baseball to give to Fauci.

Perhaps, in unscientific terms, the good vibes of the event translated onto the field. In a game veteran manager Servais later described as “one of the best games I have ever seen,” the Yankees and the Mariners battled out a scoreless tie for 13 innings, until the Mariners won it with a walk-off single, 1-0.

In April 2022, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance became Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, an independent, nonprofit organization that also serves as UW Medicine’s cancer program.

Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. 

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