What do Dr Fauci’s emails reveal about the early days of the Covid pandemic?

Infectious diseases expert’s correspondence from first six months of 2020 reveal extent of personal pressure he endured as face of federal response to pandemic

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 03 June 2021 14:39 BST
Dr Fauci reveals ‘extraordinary death threats’ received throughout pandemic

For Americans, Dr Anthony Fauci, the experienced director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been the face of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

While the president, Donald Trump, dismissed and downplayed the threat of Covid-19, insisting it would “miraculously” disappear and that it was just  the Democrats’ “new hoax” to undermine him, pushing back against the need to lock down for fear of tanking the economy in an election year, Dr Fauci’s scientific perspective on the crisis provided a vital counterpoint.

While, Mr Trump sparred with journalists in the White House Rose Garden and declined to wear a face mask, Dr Fauci, aimed to keep the public informed, making endless media appearances and shrugging off both the president’s jealous mockery of his growing celebrity and criticism from the far-right of the Republican Party.

But what was the veteran thinking during the most extraordinary year of a distinguished career that had already seen him take on HIV/AIDS, Ebola and the Zika virus?

Now we know, thanks to the release of a huge tranche of his private emails sent between January and June 2020.

Why have his emails become public?

Freedom of information requests sent by BuzzFeed News, The Washington Post and CNN saw the former granted access to 3,200 pages of emails fired off by Dr Fauci in the first six months of last year.

The Post also received 866 pages sent in March and April 2020 when the coronavirus first arrived in North America and CNN obtained a number of emails from last February, although many were heavily redacted.

Entertaining the Wuhan lab leak theory

Among the most interesting revelations from the dispatches is that Dr Fauci took the idea that Covid-19 might have been man-made at least semi-seriously.

The claim that the Chinese government had bioengineered the virus in a laboratory and released it, perhaps by accident, was until recently, when Joe Biden ordered US intelligence services investigate the possibility, roundly dismissed as a Sinophobic conspiracy theory.

But an email was sent to Dr Fauci on 16 April 2020 by Dr Francis Collins, director of the US National Institute of Health, under the subject line “conspiracy gains momentum” and containing a link to a news story highlighting a Fox News report that said the allegation had merit.

The recipient’s response to Mr Collins is entirely redacted, but its existence at least tells us that the theory was on his radar and being taken into consideration, even if only with a view to debunking it.

Declining to criticise Trump

This is White House in full overdrive and I am in the middle of it,” Dr Fauci wrote in one email from 2 February, summarising the frantic atmosphere in the West Wing as “reminiscent of post-anthrax days.”

But the drama in the corridors of power did not lead the doctor to criticise the commander-in-chief.

In fact, the emails find Dr Fauci at pains to insist his public remarks were not being censored by President Trump or his administration.

“I understand Vice President [Mike] Pence has ordered you to not inform the public about Coronavirus without approval,” one member of the public wrote to him in February 2020 after tracking down his email address.

“This is quite terrifying, especially since Trump has already shown his desire to spread false or incomplete information about this public health crisis.”

“I actually have not been muzzled at all by the Vice President,” Dr Fauci told her in his response.

The emails revealed Dr Fauci was prepared to answer the concerns of total strangers, as well as those of politicians, the leaders of major professional organisations and prominent figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Melinda Gates and actress Morgan Fairchild.

Doubts over face masks

Taking the time to offer personal advice to former US Health and Human Services secretary Sylvia Burwell on 5 February, Dr Fauci is seen expressing doubt over the efficacy of shop-bought masks.

“Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection,” he wrote.

“The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out the virus, which is small enough to pass through the material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keeping out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you. I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a very low risk location.”


Among the thousands of emails hitting the expert’s inbox, many expressed friendly concern for his own wellbeing and the personal toll the crisis was taking on him.

“I am really tired. Not much sleep these days,” he confided to a journalist on 4 February.

Howard Bauchner, editor-in-chief of The Journal of the American Medical Association, asked him a day later about whether his workload was already becoming excessive.

“Am hanging in there,” Dr Fauci replied. “Feels like my internship and first year residency when I was on every other night and every other weekend, but actually never left the hospital because the patients were so sick.”

When Chinese health official George Gao wrote to him on 8 April regretting his being attacked in the media by “irritational” opponents, the doctor replied three days later: “Thank you for your kind note. All is well despite some crazy people in this world.”

He was presumably not alluding to the president.

Bemusement at growing celebrity

Dr Fauci also expresses discomfort at his blossoming international fame in the emails, which saw “Listen to the science” and “Fauci for president” yard signs pop up across the US and his likeness plastered on T-shirts, socks, bobblehead dashboard toys and even prayer candles.

He described the prospect of Fauci doughnuts going on sale as: “Truly surrealistic. Hopefully this all stops soon... It is not at all pleasant, that is for sure.”

Writing to another colleague on 8 April, he supplied a link to a story he found particularly absurd with the note: “Click on the ‘Cuomo Crush’ and ‘Fauci Fever’ link below. It will blow your mind. Our society is really totally nuts.”

He did, however, greatly enjoy Brad Pitt’s impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live (SNL) that same month.

“One reviewer of the SNL show said that Pitt looked ‘exactly like me.’ That statement made my year,” Dr Fauci wrote to a colleague, beaming at the compliment.

How are the emails being received?

BuzzFeed’s Natalie Bettendord and Jason Leopold summarise Dr Anthony Fauci’s correspondence as “courteous, low-key, and empathetic”.

For Tara McKelvey of the BBC, the response from the American public is likely to be as divided as ever: “Fauci’s emails are like a Rorschach ink blot: what you see in them reveals more about you than the ink blot, or, in this case, the emails.”

Others, such as Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, will likely find fault in Dr Fauci’s correspondence.

The Georgia firebrand, who tried to launch a bill in April calling for the director’s salary to be slashed as punishment for his “flip-flopping advice” during the pandemic, last month addressed a rally in Arizona in which she attacked the “Woke Covid religion”, whose adherents, she said, sleep on pillows emblazoned with Dr Fauci’s face.

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