Dr Anthony Fauci has returned to the White House under a new administration confronting the coronavirus emergency, serving as chief medical adviser as Joe Biden seeks to distribute 100 million vaccines amid a surging death toll.
Within hours after his inauguration, President Biden wrote to the World Health Organisation to retract Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agency, reversing course from the former president’s isolationist response to the global health crisis.
Dr Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addressed the WHO on Thursday – a year to the day the first case of Covid-19 was discovered in the US – to assure the agency that the US will honour its partnership and funding commitments.
After being sidelined or removed from the foreground of the federal response in the final months of the Trump administration, Dr Fauci returned to the White House on Thursday alongside the president and new administration officials. President Biden outlined a series of executive actions to combat the disease as the US braces for a death toll to reach 500,000 lives lost to the disease in the coming weeks.
“It was very clear there were things that were said … that really were uncomfortable because they were not based in scientific fact,” Dr Fauci said about the former president from behind the lectern inside the White House briefing room on Thursday.
“I take no pleasure at all in being in a situation to contradict the president,” he said. “The idea you can get up here, and talk about what you know, what evidence there is, what the science is, and that’s it – let the science speak – it is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”
In a letter to WHO secretary-general Antonio Guterres on Wednesday, Mr Biden said that the agency “plays a crucial role in the world’s fight against the deadly Covid-19 pandemic as well as countless other threats to global health and health security”.
“The United States will continue to be a full participant and a global leader in confronting such threats and advancing global health and health security,” he said.
“You’re going to hear a lot from Dr Fauci,” Mr Biden said on Thursday as he introduced his Covid-19 response team. “Not from the president, but from the real, genuine experts and scientists. We’re going to make sure they work free from political interference, and they make decisions based on science and health alone.”
Dr Fauci, who emerged from the coronavirus crisis under the Trump White House as a credible voice amid the administration’s chaotic response, will remain with the new Biden administration as a chief medical adviser.
The former president frequently contradicted his chief disease expert, from the onset of the pandemic when Mr Trump falsely and repeatedly insisted the virus would disappear with warm weather, to clashes over unproven drug therapies, testing strategies and mask guidance, even as the nation’s infections and death toll accelerated.
In July, the White House issued a “lengthy list” of claims Dr Fauci made in the early weeks of the pandemic in an attempt to undermine his credibility; by then, the president had not been in contact with Dr Fauci in more than a month.
The president’s campaign attacked him in ads. Mr Trump called him a “disaster”. By October, Dr Fauci had not attended a White House coronavirus task force meeting for several months.
Mr Trump alarmed health officials when he announced his withdrawal from the United Nations health agency, from which the former president threatened to pull funds in the middle of the public health crisis, unless it agreed to make significant changes. The former president levelled numerous criticisms against the agency over its handling of the virus and its relationship with China.
The Trump administration also pulled the US and its substantial financial and logistical support from the Covax Facility, which has undercut the agency’s goal of distributing millions of vaccines during the crisis.
Dr Fauci did not address those criticisms in his remarks to the WHO but said that the US “will work constructively with partners to strengthen and importantly reform the WHO, to help lead the collective effort to strengthen the international Covid-19 response and address its secondary impacts on people, communities, and health systems around the world”.
“This is a good day for WHO and a good day for global health,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general, said. “The role of the United States, its role, global role, is very, very crucial.”