Fighting Zika

As concerns about Zika grip the U.S. and global community, Anthony Fauci, M.D., ’62 and George Savidis ’12 are at the center of efforts to learn more about this disease.

By Eric Butterman

Disease and unease often accompany each other—especially when it is an illness people know little about—and that has been the climate around Zika in the United States and parts of Central and South America in 2016. For Anthony Fauci, M.D., ’62, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this means he has been called to be a man of comfort, as well as a man of science.

The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s saw him emerge as a figure offering both answers and compassion, during a time when people weren’t just victims of illness, but also of the misconceptions and prejudices surrounding the disease. Throughout his career, Fauci has been an important voice for informing the public and a leader in formulating a scientific plan to destroy, or at least limit, the impact of a disease.

When I talked with Dr. Fauci in August, Zika had moved beyond a possible scenario. As of press time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 43 locally transmitted cases of Zika in the U.S., all in Florida. Fauci says that part of his job is to help the public understand that, while caution is important, they should also take relative risk into account when it comes to Zika. The majority of people infected won’t have any symptoms or even know they’re infected. Therein lies Fauci’s gift for calming, but, he must also take on the role of the one who gives warning.

“The most critical issue,” he says, “and this is what gets people confused, is that if you get infected with Zika and you are a pregnant woman … there is a chance that you will have a baby that will have congenital abnormalities like microcephaly.” This is a condition in which a baby’s head is smaller than normal. Fauci clearly doesn’t enjoy being the bearer of potential bad news, but he knows it’s a part of his role as well.

Fauci has been regularly quoted as a media expert for years, most recently appearing on CBS News, CNN, C-SPAN and NBC Washington, as well as in the New York Times and USA Today, to educate the public on the Zika risk.

Still, Fauci and his organization haven’t only been part of informing the public when it comes to Zika.

They are also leading the way in efforts to create a vaccine against the disease. “We started the first Phase I trial in a human in normal volunteers,” he explains. “We’re looking to see if it’s safe and getting the right response. We started that on August 2 at our hospital. We will do it in Emory in Atlanta and the University of Maryland-Baltimore.

“It will be 80 people, and we will be finished near the end of the calendar year. If it turns out that it will be safe—and we believe it will—then you’re looking at the Phase II, Phase III trial scenarios.” Those trials would be performed in places where Zika is active, he says.

Fauci’s ability to analyze and act in the face of difficult realities has been recognized often throughout his career, including in 2008, when President George W. Bush honored Fauci with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “It was an amazing feeling and it was humbling,” Fauci says. During Fauci’s 32 years as director of NIAID, he has advised five presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Fauci was also a principal architect of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which began in 2003 with a goal of creating an AIDS-free generation. According to Fauci, it is the most successful public health endeavor in U.S. history, saving millions of lives by implementing HIV prevention, treatment and care services in countries battling AIDS.

Fauci has been thankful to see those afflicted with AIDS have a chance at better physical health due to the PEPFAR program, especially after seeing so many suffer. But with his trademark sense of balance, he also warns against letting positive results lead to complacency.

Fauci’s remarkable career accomplishments range from helping to turn the NIAID from an institute with a yearly budget in the millions to in the billions today, to being a leader against diseases and even possible biological attacks. Through it all, he has had his days at Holy Cross, where he majored in classics and premed, to help give him resolve.

 “The Jesuit training and idea of service to others that permeated Holy Cross had a major impact on my choice of public service in the field of medicine and health,” Fauci says. “Also, the concept of always striving for excellence in whatever one does was part of the culture of Holy Cross. I have since carried that with me over the years.”