A Special Conversation: Dr. Tony Fauci and Oprah Winfrey

Research!America

“What did we learn from the rapid spread of this pandemic that will better equip us for the future?” asked Oprah Winfrey to begin a conversation with Dr. Tony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at Research!America’s 2021 Virtual Advocacy Awards. Dr. Fauci was the recipient of the Outstanding Achievement in Public Health Award. 

“We have lived through history, you and I,” Dr. Fauci responded, “and what we're learning is you've got to be prepared — really serious preparation — at the global health level and at the scientific level.” 

The segment opened with an introduction from Research!America Board Member Guillermo Prado, PhD, Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Miami. He praised Dr. Fauci for serving as the “bedrock and north star” throughout the pandemic. “It may not be possible to quantify the value of a port in the storm, but it is possible to be profoundly grateful for it, for him,” he said. 

“The heavens know, the angels rejoice, nobody deserves it more than you,” Oprah said, opening the discussion. 

Dr. Fauci has been at the helm of the pandemic response since the early months of 2020. When asked about exhaustion, Dr. Fauci said the task at hand has been far too important to feel fatigued, comparing the feeling to that of taking care of a very sick patient. Oprah asked Dr. Fauci if he thinks he might have time to take a breath and relax in the near future. He replied, “You know, I think so. Because if you look at what's going on right now… we've really done a very good job of getting vaccines into people's arms.”

Dr. Fauci has been recognized, and deservedly so, for his enormous efforts to ensure the end of COVID-19, but he made a point to recognize health care workers, doctors, nurses, and other health care providers who are working on the front. “They are truly the heroes and the heroines of this, so much so that we all owe them a real, real deep debt of gratitude,” he said. He also mentioned the contributions of scientists and their work over decades as well as the “extraordinary investments that were made in basic and clinical research” which allowed for the rapid development of the COVID vaccines.

Oprah noted that as scientific knowledge continues to grow, the advice based on science changes as well. She asked Dr. Fauci how he responds to those who find the information about COVID-19 confusing or untrustworthy, adding her admiration for his integrity and ability to “stand so calmly in the center of the storm all around you.” 

“Confusion often is understandable,” he said. “I think it's a lack of appreciation, that science and knowledge, particularly in an evolving pandemic, is a very dynamic process. It's not static.”

Oprah also noted how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted racial and ethnic minorities and highlighted the inequities these groups have experienced for years. She asked Dr. Fauci for his thoughts on a tangible step to eliminate these disparities. He replied, “it is all based on social determinants of health, which gets down to one word, racism.” He made a call to action: “We need to make a decades-long commitment to erasing the kind of racism that puts brown and black people in a position where they're so vulnerable to a thing like an outbreak.” 

Oprah brought the point home, saying, “it's not racial. It's not because of the color of your skin. It's because it's not racial, it's racism.” 

Looking to the end of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci emphasized that “a global pandemic requires a global response...We've got to take care of the entire world, not just our country.” 

Oprah made the connection to the surge of disease in India, asking if that should be a concern for the rest of the world. “Absolutely, totally, and completely,” Dr. Fauci replied, and explained the possibility that variants and mutations will continue to pose a threat until COVID-19 is under control on a global scale. “Viral pandemics don't have passports,” he said, “they go wherever they want to go.” 

Oprah admired Dr. Fauci’s “thick skin” and ability to center himself. “I grew up in the streets of New York City, so that's something in and of itself,” he responded. “When I came here to the NIH, I realized that if you were going to concentrate on the things that are really important, there are things you don’t get influenced by.” He explained that there is no room to let the aduluation of those that support what he represents, nor the criticism by those that dislike and distrust him, distract from the work.

“Once we are on the other side, what will be the most important step that we can take as a nation to heal?” asked Oprah. 

Recognizing that there are different types of healing that need to take place, Dr. Fauci explained that what has bothered him deeply is the degree of divisiveness the nation has experienced. “How can we continue to be a great country, if we have an extraordinary, vehement divisiveness among us? We've got to heal that before we go anywhere” he said. 

Oprah wrapped up the conversation by asking Dr. Fauci what receiving the 2021 Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Health means to him. “It means a lot to me because it is within an environment and a group of people that are my peers. There's a certain something being recognized by your peers, the people you work with, the people you respect, the people you know.” 

The unforgettable conversation between two of America’s most trusted communicators was an exciting conclusion to an event that, in the words of Research!America President and CEO Mary Woolley, recognized “researchers and advocates whose contributions to medical, public health, and scientific progress, have conveyed profoundly significant societal benefits.”

Watch a recording of the full 2021 Advocacy Awards program.

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Without continued support for health research, many of the most promising young scientists, their ideas and a myriad of potentially life-changing scientific breakthroughs will vanish into oblivion.
Paul Marinec, PhD; University of California San Francisco