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How the Public Health Establishment Squandered Our Trust

Photo credit: NIAID, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

The Covid pandemic was devastating, not only for society generally, but also to the reputations of our once-trusted health agencies. Two of America’s once-leading public-health officials bear great responsibility for this debacle — former National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci, who led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases between 1984 and 2022.

When the pandemic first struck, I held both in high regard. Collins successfully led the Human Genome Project that sequenced the human genome. Fauci had contributed greatly to ameliorating the AIDS crisis. So, there was reason to trust in their leadership. Alas, both squandered the opportunity.

Let’s start with the cause of the pandemic. Early on, Fauci insisted in a press conference that the overwhelming evidence — based on a peer-reviewed study, no less — pointed to the virus leaping from animals to people instead of being a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. What Fauci failed to disclose was that the “study” — such as it turned out to be — was his idea. Emails obtained later showed that he not only prompted publication of the paper with the apparent purpose of discrediting the “lab leak” theory, but also helped edit it and had final approval of its contents.

Yet today, we know that the lab-leak hypothesis is a highly plausible explanation for the pandemic, a fact that even Collins recently admitted. Could Fauci have been more disingenuous?

Six Feet Apart

And remember when we were told by Collins and Fauci to practice “social distancing” by remaining six feet apart at all times? That guidance was responsible for school closures. It deprived small businesses — particularly restaurants — of their profitability. It kept people from visiting hospitalized patients, holding the hands of dying loved ones, and attending funerals. It increased social isolation, led to suicides, and made life miserable in myriad ways, large and small.

We were assured that the directive was based on well-researched scientific studies and understandings. In actuality, there was nothing “scientific” about it — as revealed belatedly by Fauci, who reportedly said in a deposition the social-distancing guidance “sort of just appeared.” What?

Fauci’s shocking admission was confirmed by Collins in a just-released deposition transcript provided to National Review wherein he admitted that he did “not see any evidence” supporting six-feet distancing. Asked if he has ever seen any evidence supporting the six-foot-rule, the former public-health leader simply said, “No.”

“A Devastating Takedown”

The duo also worked behind the scenes to generate “a devastating takedown” of the expert opinions of three leading epidemiologists publicly published in October 2020, known as the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). The GBD argued that mass shutdowns were an epidemiological mistake and that the far-better approach to the dangers posed by the pandemic would be “focused protection” of the vulnerable, allowing the rest of society to return to normal functioning.

There was nothing wrong with Collins and Fauci disagreeing with the GBD. But rather than engage with its contents, both sought instead to discredit the GBD’s authors as “fringe,” a patent falsehood given that its authors were medical professors in elite medical schools with hundreds of published papers among them. Because of Fauci’s and Collins’ behind-the-scenes efforts, the GBD’s authors — Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford, and Martin Kulldorff, then of Harvard (he was subsequently fired for refusing to be vaccinated) — soon found themselves subjected to media scorn, accused of being indifferent to Covid deaths, their reputations tarnished in the most public ways. (To hear Bhattacharya’s first-person description of that emotionally searing experience, hit this link to our interview on my Humanize podcast.)

Why do that? Collins — who, unlike the GBD’s authors, but like Fauci, is not an epidemiologist — stated in the deposition that he was worried because the proposal had been “presented to a cabinet member” and could become policy potentially causing (he believed) tens of thousands of deaths “without opportunity for any scientific debate.”

Then have the debate, which was precisely what the GBD authors wanted! But that never happened, I suspect, because neither official wanted his great sway with government officials threatened.

“Gain of Function” Research

Fauci and Collins also undermined the reputation of public-health officials by obfuscating NIH’s funding “gain of function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, from which the virus might have escaped. Indeed, Fauci denied outright approving funding such experiments when questioned by Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

But now we know these denials were false. An NIH official just spilled the beans under questioning at a congressional hearing. When asked if the NIH funded such experiments, the official replied, “It depends on your definition of gain-of-function research. If you’re speaking about the generic term, yes, we did.” Busted.

Not Solely Responsible

Fauci and Collins are not solely responsible for the Covid-policy debacle. They could not have so dominated public responses to the pandemic but for the mainstream media’s abandoning all skepticism, the meek acquiescence by a myriad of elected officials, enforcement by corporations of authoritarian policies such as vaccine mandates, and the duplicity of teachers’ unions that insisted on school closings and sought to use the pandemic to achieve their overarching social agendas, among others.

Little of that would have happened if Collins and Fauci had approached their work in a humbler manner, welcoming the give-and-take of open scientific discourse, and admitting when answers were unknown.

Yes, they were under great pressure because of the suddenness of the pandemic, the worry over public panic, and a desire to save lives. But by seeking to hoard influence unto themselves, repeatedly misleading the public by omission and commission, and stifling opposing ideas, Collins and Fauci did a disservice to the country, shattering the credibility of our public-health systems.

Cross-posted at National Review.