Portrait: Anthony Fauci
Tony Fauci has developed a knack for telling people what they don't want to hear. It's not an unusual role for a physician, but few have to deliver undiluted bad news to an entire country. As director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci has emerged as the nation's go-to guy when it comes to explaining the new facts of life with bioterrorism. Since last October, he has been ubiquitous, appearing before Congress and on every known news show to say that there most certainly will be more bioterror attacks, that some people will inevitably be injured or killed before a response can be mounted, and that we will never be 100 percent safe. He knows that people want to hear him say that their risk is zero. "But it's not. I'm sorry, it's not."
Fauci has had practice as America's straight-talking doctor. A generation ago, he first entered the national spotlight as the government's AIDS expert, telling a frightened public that science could offer little hard data to allay its concerns. "That's what I do; that's my life!" he says. "I'm an infectious disease guy!" Sprawled in a leather chair in his of-fice at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., Fauci talks of "category A" infectious agents--the really bad ones--as if he's handicapping football games. Tularemia--deadly, but you can treat it with antibiotics. Plague, same thing. "The other ones are Ebola and the hemorrhagic fevers, and we're making very good progress toward an Ebola vaccine," he says, in a voice remarkably like that of another Brooklyn-born overachiever, Woody Allen. "Smallpox and anthrax, in my mind, are the two biggies."
Treating fear. His lesson is motivated by a deep belief that if people understand the science and can evaluate the risk for themselves, their fear becomes manageable. And at the same time that Fauci is being a doomsayer, he's shepherding along research to create new defenses against anthrax and smallpox, reducing the risk--and the fear--as much as possible. Fauci's tell-all approach is a complete turnaround from the early days of bioterror, when federal officials alternated between evasiveness and false assurances they later had to eat.
Just days before the first inhalation anthrax case was discovered in Florida, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson appeared on 60 Minutes and told a jittery population it was "safe," adding: "We're prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence that develops from any kind of bioterrorism attack." As it quickly became evident that the government wasn't the least prepared, public anxiety soared. Thompson drafted Fauci to join a small group of advisers and, as Fauci says, "be the voice of reason and give a scientific--a cold, analytical, truthful, yet reassuring--statement to the American people." Fauci is one of the few people who can combine cold and reassuring and make it work. "You walk a tightrope between telling it like it is and making it too scary," says C. Everett Koop, who got to know Fauci well when he served as surgeon general in the early years of the AIDS crisis. "He does it well. He won't drop his integrity just to make it come out right politically."