The danger of COVID-19 misinformation is 'mind-boggling,' says Dr. Anthony Fauci

With the COVID-19 death toll in the United States having surpassed 730,000, Dr. Anthony Fauci tells IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed that he finds it "mind-boggling" that partisanship and skepticism of science continue to fuel the pandemic.

Leader of U.S. pandemic response says, 'I don't understand what is going on in society'

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is the chief medical adviser to the U.S. president, says the world is in the 'worst possible environment' for a global pandemic. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

Despite the fact that more than 730,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, the U.S. has a comparatively low vaccination rate — only about 57 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci believes that misinformation has had a major role to play in that. 

Fauci, who is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been one of the world's most visible leaders in the COVID-19 pandemic response. The physician has been NIAID director since 1984, and over nearly 40 years, has advised seven U.S. presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan.

He spoke with IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed over Zoom about the place of science in democracy, after delivering McGill University's Beatty Lecture earlier this month.

Here is an excerpt from their conversation.

Nahlah Ayed: In the 19th century in the West, science displaced religion as an ultimate authority in society. But now the authority of science in the public sphere is in danger of being displaced by social media and political rhetoric. I'm wondering what you think happened? 

This is something that is so disturbing to me as a physician, as a scientist and as a public health person. 

I mean, if ever you could imagine the worst possible environment into which a global pandemic emerges, it would be in an environment of anti-science [and] complete normalization of lies.

It is just mind-boggling. I mean, if I were some diabolical, evil spirit and I wanted to cast upon the world the worst time to get an outbreak, it's when you have this kind of combination of divisiveness with the complete accessibility and spread of complete falsehood. There is nothing worse than that in the middle of a pandemic. 

A lot of the sentiment among those who are anti-vaxxers or anti-maskers is this belief that individual freedom is being threatened by the state in imposing some of these mandates. Here in Canada, for example, we're seeing major outbreaks in provinces like Alberta, where the government has been reluctant to infringe on individual choice by imposing public health restrictions. How should we approach the value of individual freedom within the context of this global pandemic? 

Well, that is an extraordinarily relevant question, but a very difficult question ... I think the most important thing is to try and address people who have that attitude [by] trying to convince them of the importance of safety for themselves, their family and society.

I think what people have to appreciate is that indeed you do have personal liberties for yourself and you should be in control of that. But you are a member of society, and as a member of society, reaping all the benefits of being a member of society, you have a responsibility to society. 

And I think each of us — particularly in the context of a pandemic that's killing millions of people — you have got to look at it and say, there comes a time when you do have to give up what you consider your individual right of making your own decision for the greater good of society. 

An activist holds up a surgical mask during a protest of a visit by First Lady Jill Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Harlem, N.Y., in June 2021. (Craig Ruttle/AP Photo)

You've spent much of your career studying and fighting viruses, and the parallels between viruses and misinformation are quite striking: there's community spread, they come in successive waves and in fact can lead to really deadly consequences. I'm wondering if there's anything we can learn from eradicating viruses that could help us in eradicating misinformation?

I really wish I had that answer for you. I don't understand what is going on in society. It worries me, quite frankly. It worries me deeply. 

I lose as much sleep — to the extent that I get any sleep these days … worrying about the overall implications of the rampant spread of misinformation and disinformation on society in general. Not just how you address an outbreak. You know, I could make up something as an answer, but I don't have an answer. 

It's terrible how we've gotten into [this] situation... Now everything seems to be normalized. It's as easy to say something crazy as it is to say something that's based on years of scientific evidence. 

And then when you get in an argument [it becomes] false equivalency. "You know, a Nobel laureate who discovered this says this." "But Joe Johns on their Facebook said that." So, you know, one to one equally could be correct. That there has to be frightening, because it's happening. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene held a press conference in Washington, D.C., in June 2021 calling for the dismissal of Fauci. The U.S. congresswoman, known for sharing conspiracy theories, targeted Fauci for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

How do we restore scientific authority in the public sphere? 

I think that's the reason why we have got to get back to getting STEM more emphasized in the education of our children, but also of the general public. 

One of the things that has been the source of considerable confusion is the lack of appreciation that science is evidence and data … Science evolves and science corrects itself. There are many people who interpret that as flip-flopping. "There they go again. They're flip-flopping. Why believe them? They told us this in January, and now they're telling us this here." That's the same theme that goes through criticisms of people, including me. You know, "He said this in January, but now it's a year later, he's saying this."

Well, guess what? It's because the data and the science has changed … [As a scientist] if the situation changes and you fail to change with the data, then you're really doing something wrong, not the opposite. That has been completely, in many respects, lost by some people. 

You are 80 now, what do you hope your legacy will be?

Well, I've devoted my life to public service, and by a set of circumstances beyond my control I happen to have been involved in the middle of some of the worst outbreaks of infectious diseases in history … I would hope I will be remembered as someone who tried their best and had an impact. 

*Written by Nicola Luksic. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

WATCH | Dr. Anthony Fauci's McGill University's 2021 Beatty Lecture and Nahlah Ayed's interview: 

Other guests in the IDEAS episode:

Maya Goldenberg is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph. Her research centres on the philosophy of science and medicine, with an interest in the connection between science and values. Her recent book is Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise and the War on Science.

Prativa Baral is a doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a research assistant with Canada's COVID-19 Immunity Task Force. She was the co-moderator of the McGill University Beatty Lecturer's conversation with students.

Emily MacLean is a research assistant in the McGill International TB Centre, currently pursuing her Ph.D. in epidemiology. 

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