Former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr. hosted Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for a virtual MasterMinds guest speaker event, Sept. 18.
During the event, Fauci shared key COVID-19 related insights with the DIA workforce.
As a scientist who has worked for NIAID for over 50 years—including the last 36 as director—and has advised six presidential administrations on infectious diseases, Fauci provides advice on situations based on scientific data.
“Scientific data may not be something that someone wants to hear, but what’s really important is that the word gets out—that you tell someone the truth based on science,” he explained. “This is an unprecedented outbreak; the greatest challenge we’ve had in an acute period of time in the last 102 years, since the 1918 pandemic, and there are a lot of things we need to do both from a scientific standpoint but also for communicating to the public.”
Throughout Fauci’s lifetime, he has developed a skill to speak truth to power. When asked how he ensures his message is not lost when delivering information that may not be well received, understood, or goes against popular opinion, he explained that it helps him to think it may be the last time he’s asked a question, so he must be ready and willing to answer it.
“If you’re not afraid to tell the truth and not afraid to be shot down, no matter who is asking, then the word gets out that you’ll always be known as someone who speaks unbiased truth,” he said.
Fauci was asked how he explains changes in policy and guidance to people who may not understand the reason behind those changes, and how he ensures the information is accurately understood as being driven by science and not by an agenda, or opinion.
“When you’re involved in something that is evolving over time, the best you can do is make a recommendation or a statement based on the data that you have at that particular time,” Fauci stated. “When the situation changes the data may change, that is the nature of science—it’s called self-correcting, making a modification to a previous recommendation based on new data.”
Fauci provided an example by addressing the initial onset of COVID-19, and the change in recommendations on the wearing of masks.
“There wasn’t a strong recommendation at first of the wearing of masks, as we didn’t want healthcare personnel and other essential workers who are putting themselves at risk every day to not have adequate surgical masks to protect themselves,” he said.
Fauci noted that as COVID-19 research continued, it was soon discovered that 40-50% of infected individuals don’t show symptoms. “Modeling showed us that about 50% of transmissions go from someone who is infected but without symptoms to an uninfected person,” he said. So, the recommendation quickly changed to stress the importance of wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding crowds, and washing hands.”
Fauci also discussed the role of medical intelligence in public health policy decision-making. He emphasized that the use of classified information to inform decisions does not dilute or diminish messages pertaining to public health.
“I have been in this situation for years, dating back to my involvement in the anthrax attacks,” he said. “I have never been faced with the issue of violating the release of classified information—I can still function by getting the best information to the public regarding their health.”
Fauci explained that the COVID-19 pandemic will change how public health professionals, the scientific community and the U.S. Intelligence Community work together. He also stressed the importance of transparency on the part of other nations. To achieve that transparency, Fauci and his team are currently working to establish a global health security network, which will allow the transfer of information around the world in real time.
In closing, Fauci shared a final reflection on pandemics.
“I hope the COVID-19 outbreak leaves us with the corporate memory that outbreaks have always occurred, are occurring now, and will continue to occur,” he said. “That’s the reason why you need to be vigilant, use good transparency and communication, and when necessary, (classified) intelligence.”