Did Dr. Fauci Predict a Serious Pandemic During Trump’s Presidency — in 2017?

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In January 2017, Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted a serious pandemic during U.S. President Donald Trump's tenure in office.

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White House Coronavirus Task Force lead member Dr. Anthony Fauci was a widely familiar face throughout the coronavirus pandemic (due in part to what many perceived as a soberingly honest approach to the crisis), and by late March 2020, Fauci was rumored to have “predicted” a virus like COVID-19 and its ripple effects back in January 2017.

So relatively candid was Fauci in daily coronavirus briefings that the media regularly raised concerns for his job security. On April 1 2020, The Atlantic published an editorial speculating that Fauci might be unceremoniously dismissed from his high-profile job over his tendency to honestly address the American public.

Around the same time, numerous Twitter users made reference to Fauci predicting a Trump-era pandemic in 2017:

Over on Reddit’s r/conspiracy, the claim appeared in the form of a screenshot (with yellow highlighting) on March 25 2020:

Fauci: ‘No doubt’ Trump will face surprise infectious disease outbreak…. said it 2017!!! from conspiracy

The text of the screenshot are transcribed below, with the highlighted portions marked in bold text:

Fauci: ‘No doubt’ Trump will face surprise infectious disease outbreak
January 11, 2017

Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said there is “no doubt” Donald J. Trump will be confronted with a surprise infectious disease outbreak during his presidency.

Fauci has led the NIAID for more than 3 decades, advising the past five United States presidents on global health threats from the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s through to the current Zika virus outbreak.

During a forum on pandemic preparedness at Georgetown University, Fauci said the Trump administration will not only be challenged by ongoing global health threats such as influenza and HIV, but also a surprise disease outbreak.

“The history of the last 32 years that I have been the director of the NIAID will tell the next administration that there is no doubt they will be faced with the challenges their predecessors were faced with,” he said.

That person did not elaborate on why they shared the screenshot to r/conspiracy, but overall interacted a great deal on COVID-19 related Reddit threads.

The screenshot showed a January 11 2017 item published by healthcare news aggregator Healio.com. The text shown in the screenshot was accurately represented, and the piece continued with commentary from other experts on infectious disease:

Ronald Klain, who coordinated the U.S.’s Ebola response for the Obama administration, said Trump’s virtual silence about the Zika outbreak and harsh comments about American volunteers infected during the West African Ebola outbreak is “not the kind of leadership we need in our next president.”

“It’s hard to think of a more important time to show a willingness to speak out in the public health community and the global health community than it is right now on the eve of Donald Trump becoming our next president,” Klain said. “The risks have never been higher, and the question of his perspective on these issues has never been more dubious than it is with Donald Trump.”

Fauci and others noted some of the disease outbreaks that recent administrations have faced, including current President Barack Obama, whose administration was tested early on with an H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009. More recently, the administration was forced to repurpose almost $600 million in federal funds set aside for the Ebola outbreak when Republicans rejected Obama’s request for $1.9 billion to fund the nation’s Zika response.

The reporting concluded with additional commentary attributed to Fauci in January 2017, first about the Zika virus, and then “the things we are not even thinking about.” Fauci’s primary emphasis appeared to be the recurring nature of pandemics in general:

Near the end [of the pandemic preparedness conference], Fauci speculated about the possibility that there will be a resurgence of Zika this summer … Fauci said other concerns for the Trump administration include the potential for a new influenza pandemic and outbreaks of diseases that are not yet on anyone’s radar.

“What about the things we are not even thinking about?” he said. “No matter what, history has told us definitively that [outbreaks] will happen because [facing] infectious diseases is a perpetual challenge. It is not going to go away. The thing we’re extraordinarily confident about is that we’re going to see this in the next few years.”

A February 2017 Healio.com item in “Infectious Disease News” was similar in content and tone. Several portions of the separate report matched the earlier one verbatim.

On January 12 2017, Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) published a brief on Fauci’s remarks two days before on pandemic preparedness. It explained the purpose of the event at which Fauci spoke about the threat of pandemics:

As director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984, Anthony S. Fauci, MD, has worked with five presidents who all faced pandemics early in their presidencies. At “Pandemic Preparedness in the Next US Presidential Administration,” a gathering of students and global health experts from academia, government and advocacy at Georgetown on [January 10 2017], Fauci and other global health leaders encouraged the incoming Trump administration to plan accordingly.

“If there’s one message that I want to leave with you today based on my experience, it is that there is no question that there will be a challenge to the coming administration in the arena of infectious diseases,” Fauci said.

The event was organized by the Center for Global Health Science and Security (GHSS) at Georgetown University Medical Center in partnership with the Harvard Global Health Institute.

Fauci was one of several experts quoted in the coverage of the pandemic-related presentation, but he was the only one appearing nightly on television screens during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Others quoted in reporting on the talk tended to emphasize the same points — that when it comes to pandemics, it was less a matter of “if” than “when”:

Realizing that a pandemic is inevitable is a significant first step that the incoming Trump administration can take towards improving pandemic preparedness. “No matter how much an administration believes and wants to believe that the secretary of health and human services and other members of the cabinet on the domestic side will be totally focused on a domestic agenda, something will happen at an unexpected point that will change that thinking,” said Bill Steiger, PhD, chief program officer at Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, an international organization dedicated to fighting women’s cancers. “So you might as well prepare for that from the beginning.”

Trump wasn’t the only president discussed by those epidemiology experts. Although Fauci’s remarks addressed a then-incoming Trump administration, he lamented a months-long wait for Zika outbreak funding requested in February and granted in September 2016:

Setting up a funding mechanism to pay for pandemic response in advance is another critical step the Trump administration can take to prepare for a pandemic, said Amy E. Pope, JD, deputy assistant to the president and deputy homeland security advisor on the National Security Council staff at the White House. There are resources that can be quickly deployed when a community is devastated by a hurricane but not a pandemic, Pope said. “That means we are negotiating with Congress every time we need resources to address an emerging infectious disease and you all know that is a terrible way to do business and does not leave us in a very safe place,” she said.

Fauci faced that situation during [2016]’s Zika outbreak. “We need [a public health emergency fund] because of what we had to go through for Zika,” he said. “I mean, it was very, very painful when the president asked for the $1.9 billion in February [2016] and we didn’t get it until September [2016]. That was a very painful process.”

Fauci’s excerpted January 2017 commentary was in no way unique; preparing for pandemics before they manifested was a recurring topic whenever Fauci (and other public health experts) was quoted. In November 2018, Fauci once again banged the drum in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presentation, citing several examples of inefficient investment of time and money in “chasing after” new strains:

Fauci explained that when influenza pandemics occur, post hoc development of vaccines is often ineffective in response to the pandemic. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, for example, the first human outbreak occurred in March and began to spread worldwide by April. Egg-based vaccines take approximately 6 months to develop and produce, so public health officials presumed that the vaccine would be ready by the typical peak of influenza season in December and January. The vaccine was barely available when the pandemic peaked, and by the time vaccine doses were finally ready to administer, the pandemic had waned; only 90 million doses were used out of the 162 million doses that were produced.

Fauci said that the current vaccinology practice of “chasing after” prepandemic influenza is costly and ineffective. For example, influenza experts projected that the 2005 H5N1 outbreak would be a major event, and the United States president at that time requested $7.1 billion for pandemic preparedness, including the development of a vaccine; however, the outbreak never reached the pandemic level in humans. In 2013, significant investment was channeled into developing, producing, and stockpiling a vaccine for the H7N9 strain. However, the H7N9 virus circulating by 2017 had mutated, and the 2013 vaccine no longer provided adequate protection. This required developers to start chasing prepandemic influenza vaccines anew. Fauci argued that the large investments would be better invested in efforts to develop a universal vaccine rather than strain-specific ones.

Fauci’s January 2017 Georgetown University keynote speech was cited in the May 2017 National Academies book Global Health and the Future Role of the United States, as was a 2012 paper he co-authored in the New England Journal of Medicine. Once again, Fauci et. al. emphasized the “perpetual” challenge of pandemic preparedness, and once again he cited pandemics from previous administrations:

By virtue of their unpredictability and global effect, infectious diseases remain a perpetual challenge for the global community (Fauci and Morens, 2012). Since 1997, each U.S. presidential administration has been faced with an emerging or reemerging infectious disease that assumed high political priority, including HIV/AIDS, H5N1 influenza, SARS, MERS-CoV, Ebola, and Zika (Fauci, 2017).

Fauci’s long view of presidents and pandemics is reflected in his National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease (NIAID) biography, which begins:

Dr. Fauci was appointed Director of NIAID in 1984. He oversees an extensive research portfolio of basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose, and treat established infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis and malaria as well as emerging diseases such as Ebola and Zika. NIAID also supports research on transplantation and immune-related illnesses, including autoimmune disorders, asthma and allergies. The NIAID budget for fiscal year 2020 is an estimated $5.9 billion.

Dr. Fauci has advised six Presidents on HIV/AIDS and many other domestic and global health issues. He was one of the principal architects of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a program that has saved millions of lives throughout the developing world.

A March 8 2020 profile of Fauci in the New York Times is featured on that page (“Not His First Epidemic: Dr. Anthony Fauci Sticks to the Facts”), and in February 2017, Fauci himself wrote a reflection on his January 2017 pandemic presentation, explaining his work on pandemics across six presidential administrations, and concluding:

If history has taught us anything, it is that the new [then-incoming Trump] administration is likely to experience at least one infectious disease crisis of significance. We have learned from the past decades that it is important to have strong global surveillance systems; transparency and honest communication with the public; strong public health and health care infrastructure, or capacity building efforts where needed; coordinated and collaborative basic and clinical research; and the development of universal platform technologies to enable the rapid development of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. We also have learned that it is essential to have a stable and pre-established funding mechanism to utilize during public health emergencies similar to a FEMA-like emergency disaster fund. What we know for certain is that emerging infections will continue to be a perpetual challenge, requiring the attention of all Presidents to come.

To be clear, it was absolutely true Dr. Anthony Fauci “predicted” a pandemic occurring during the Trump administration, as part of a January 10 2017 keynote speech about pandemic preparedness at Georgetown University. Fauci’s regular appearance at White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings and the singling out of his remarks on one occasion inadvertently created the impression that Fauci only said such things on one occasion, or that his prediction was specific to Trump. In reality, Fauci regularly warned of coming pandemics, a lack of preparedness for them, and the difficulty in preparing for viruses like SARS-nCoV-2 in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak. His pleas for more robust government response to the threat were frequent, perhaps emphasized by his 2017 warnings going unheeded until the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. And while we’ve rated this True, the claim could also be rated also Decontextualized due to sloppy and selective presentation.

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