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After more than 50 years at the NIH, Dr. Fauci says he's retiring in December

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The nation's top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci, announced today he'll be stepping down from government service in December. Dr. Fauci has been at the National Institutes of Health for more than 50 years. He's also advised seven presidents, starting with President Reagan back in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to tell us more. Hey, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So everybody knows Dr. Fauci, or we all feel like we know him. He must be one of the most famous living scientists, the most famous living scientist.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes.

KELLY: But this feels like a good moment to look back and remind us how he got there.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah. Well, he's the grandson of Italian immigrants. He grew up in Brooklyn. He trained as a physician and then went to work at NIH in 1968, which means he's worked there for longer than either of us have been alive.

KELLY: Wow. Yeah.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He has held his position as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. And he famously works constantly. He became a public figure first in the early days of the AIDS crisis, like you mentioned. And he's now stepping down during the COVID-19 pandemic. He played a huge role in the health of the country and the world through both of those generation-defining pandemics.

KELLY: Stick with his role during HIV/AIDS just a little bit. That's maybe less at the forefront of people's minds, of course, but it's such a huge part of his legacy.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, it's true. I talked to some of the founding members of ACT UP New York, the group of gay activists who were pushing the government to do more and work faster as mostly young men were dying of a new, unnamed, unknown illness. ACT UP held some dramatic protests, including a die-in in front of the Food and Drug Administration. But members also fought to be in conversation with government scientists. And Dr. Fauci was willing to listen. Here's Gregg Gonsalves. He's a Yale epidemiologist who was in ACT UP in the early days.

GREGG GONSALVES: He's a smooth operator. You know, he pulled activists in in the late '80s, early '90s because he knew the best way to neutralize people is to bring them inside the tent.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He told me he and others would go to Dr. Fauci's house to protest or make demands, and he would invite them in and make them dinner. He wasn't perfect. He certainly has made missteps. But he has an incredible legacy as a communicator and scientist and public health leader.

KELLY: And an operator, as we heard. And he works all the time. So why is he retiring?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, a few weeks ago, he announced he would be stepping down before the end of President Biden's first term. This December timing move set up quite a lot, and it's not clear why. And I should say he is not retiring. He says he's stepping down from his roles at NIH and as President Biden's chief medical adviser. He is not planning to dust off his hands and relax. He's writing a memoir. He says he's starting the next chapter of his career and mentoring the next generation of public health leaders even though he is turning 82 in December.

KELLY: What kind of reaction are you hearing to his announcement?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, of course, there have been many tributes to him for a remarkable career and a lifetime of service. I talked to Jessica Malaty Rivera, an infectious disease epidemiologist and a senior adviser at the Pandemic Prevention Institute. She told me she wonders if people realize the incredibly difficult position he has been navigating the last few years of the COVID pandemic.

JESSICA MALATY RIVERA: I think the fact that he continued to work in his age is admirable and inspiring because it's not a sexy job per se, right? It's not a job that is chill. It's a very demanding job. And the fact that he kept doing it meant that he was motivated by things greater than himself. He was motivated by public health. He was motivated by science, innovation and ending a global emergency.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Of course, as beloved as he is by many, he's also been vilified by some Republican lawmakers and conservative groups.

MALATY RIVERA: He has faced death threats. He has faced unmatched harassment, slander, libel, defamation, I mean, all of it.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Malaty Rivera says the politicization and denial of science during the COVID pandemic has been brutal.

KELLY: Real quick, do we know who will succeed him?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: No, we do not. And Malaty Rivera told me she's concerned about the void he will leave behind not only in his official roles but in his place in the public imagination as the trusted doctor who will take complicated science in uncertain times and help you feel like you can understand things a bit more clearly.

KELLY: Thanks, Selena.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.