When Dr. Anthony Fauci came to Georgetown in 2017, he opened and closed his speech with one prediction.
“There is no question that there will be a challenge to the coming [Trump] administration in the arena of infectious diseases. There will be a surprise outbreak,” he said in thisvideo. “We’re extraordinarily confident that we are going to see this in the next few years.”
Six years later, in the wake of a pandemic that’s claimed nearly seven million lives worldwide, Dr. Fauci returned to Georgetown. This time, he talked about a few lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic — and how those lessons can inform the next “inevitable challenge.”
For nearly four decades, Dr. Fauci served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, a role he held until stepping down in December 2022. He also served as the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden. During his tenure, Dr. Fauci advised seven U.S. presidents on global HIV/AIDS issues and on emerging infectious disease threats, and was one of the principal architects of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has helped save more than 25 million lives worldwide.
Dr. Fauci came to Georgetown as the honorary speaker for theMaloy Distinguished Lecture series, an annual event hosted by the School of Foreign Service’s Science, Technology and International Affairs Program. School of Foreign Service Dean Joel Hellman introduced Dr. Fauci and shared how he reflected the school’s mission.
“SFS is a school built to train new generations to understand global problems and to combine the best of theory and practice to craft durable solutions to those problems,” Hellman said. “Who better represents that guiding mission than Dr. Anthony Fauci. For over 40 years, he has been at the intersection of research and problem solving to confront some of the most challenging global crises of our time.”
Learn more about a few of the lessons Dr. Fauci gleaned from responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. You can also watch this video for the full 10 lessons he presented to Georgetown community members at the SFS event.
1. Expect the unexpected.
A theme that has followed him throughout his career, Dr. Fauci said COVID-19 brought its own unexpected, unprecedented characteristics — namely, a highly mutable virus that has caused multiple waves of variants instead of one big outbreak.
“We were completely unprepared historically to have continual waves of viruses of the same broad species that continued to evade immunity,” he said. “We now have updated boosters, but we really can’t be playing Whack-A-Mole for every new variant. Because we will continue to have new variants.”
He emphasized the importance of always looking “over our shoulder” for new variants. Later, in an audience Q&A, Dr. Fauci described how the evolving virus — its variants, how it was transmitted — has impacted the public’s trust in science and revealed a misunderstanding of the scientific approach to a biological, public health problem.
“You’re dealing with an evolving situation where what you know in January is just different than what you know in July because things evolve, you learn more about transmissibility, all of the lessons I showed …” he said. “It’s a real problem when you’re trying to maintain credibility and give people the truth at any given time, because the truth based on data will change as the data changes.”
2. Act early and fast.
Dr. Fauci emphasized the importance of international governments collaborating, sharing information and working quickly once a pandemic threat has been identified.
“You have to act early and rapidly with public health interventions,” he said. “When you’re dealing with a pandemic, what you’re experiencing today was caused by something that happened two to three weeks ago. What’s going on now is going to manifest itself three weeks from now … Pandemics are not linear; they’re exponential.”
3. The importance of vaccine research.
Dr. Fauci underscored how decades of advancements in vaccine research laid the groundwork to accelerate the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. The efforts, he said, involved an “extraordinary multidisciplinary effort … that was out of the spotlight for decades before the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Dr. Fauci compared how long it took for previous vaccines to be developed after each disease’s microbe was discovered: 105 years for typhoid; 47 years for polio; 16 years for Hepatitis B. Eleven months for the COVID-19 vaccine was “completely unprecedented in the history of vaccinology,” he said, and saved an estimated 3.2 million lives between December 2020 through November 2022.
4. Stick to data and facts.
In presenting his lessons from the pandemic, Dr. Fauci reinforced how misinformation about COVID-19 has cost lives and “is truly the enemy of pandemic control.”
In his own career, particularly in advising the public and U.S. presidents, he said he’s maintained his own principles: “Stick with the science and never veer from that, even when the science turns out to be an inconvenient truth for somebody.”
During the audience Q&A, Ulises Olea Tapia (SFS‘25), a sophomore studying international politics, asked Dr. Fauci how he communicated with the public during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and now in the face of disinformation. Olea Tapia said he admired Dr. Fauci’s commitment to the facts, even when those facts are uncomfortable.
“Assomeonewhoaspirestohaveafutureinpublicservice,itremindsyouthatfactsshouldbetheleadingfactorwhendecidingwhatpolicywe’recreatingandvotingon,” he said. “It’scrazytohavetheprivilege tobeatGeorgetownandseethesepeoplewhoare shapingtheworld haveaconversationwithyouand answeryourmostburningquestions.”
5. You can prevent a pandemic.
Emerging and reemerging infections will continue, Dr. Fauci says. And while it’s unlikely that COVID-19 will be eradicated or eliminated in this lifetime, he said, it is possible to prevent or blunt emerging infectious diseases from becoming pandemics.
“Emerging infections are a perpetual challenge,” he said. “The only way you address a perpetual challenge is by perpetual preparedness.”
Ursula Gately (C’23), a senior who’s majoring in biology of global health, said Dr. Fauci’s talk inspired her to think about how she might play a role in preventing the next pandemic. She first began thinking about pandemic preparedness after taking the course, How to End a Pandemic, taught by Professor Rebecca Katz, in which she heard from experts on pandemic response and management.
She’s now preparing to apply to medical schools, and said Dr. Fauci’s description of himself as a “cautious optimist” helped her see how to have hope while managing an active crisis.
“Listening to his takeaways and how they could apply to future pandemics, I found myself thinking about how I could fit into this narrative for collaborative action to prevent the next pandemic,” she said. “I know that a career in the service of others is my path, and I aspire to be as brave and skillful as Dr. Fauci in providing evidence-based, compassionate care.”
Dr. Fauci concluded his talk at Georgetown reinforcing the importance of the Jesuit value of serving others, something he has personally found gratifying throughout his career.
“The feeling you get about doing what you’re doing for the benefit not only of yourself for others is one of the most incredible feelings you can get in the world,” he said. “Public service is not for everyone. But somehow, fashioning in your life service to others can be part of everybody’s goal in life.”