November 2021

Dr. Grady and Dr. Fauci Reflect on Trust, Misinformation, and Optimism During COVID-19 at the 2021 Stubing Memorial Lecture

The Greenwall Foundation’s 2021 William C. Stubing Memorial Lecture, Confronting the Public Health and Ethical Challenges of COVID-19, drew more than 650 participants to an evening of discussion featuring the public health duo leading the fight against COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Christine Grady. The virtual Lecture was moderated by CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and produced in partnership with the NYU School of Global Public Health and its Center for Bioethics.

Drs. Fauci and Grady, who married in 1985, made a rare appearance together to discuss current events and their storied careers on the front lines of public health. Dr. Grady, a Greenwall Foundation Faculty Scholars Program Committee Member, is Chief of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Dr. Fauci is Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The wide-ranging discussion touched on trust in science, how decision-makers should approach misinformation and divisiveness, and reasons to be optimistic in the face of the pandemic. Dr. Gupta began the conversation by broaching the topic of public health and how it relates to the individual and society at large. “So much of what we ask people to do when it comes to a pandemic like this, and public health, is not only [to] do things for themselves but [to] do things for the collective,” he said.

“There’s a classic tension between public health and individual interests and freedoms,” said Dr. Grady. “There are principles to public health ethics that help you sort out the kinds of interventions we should use…things that are effective, that are proportional, where the benefits outweigh the risks, that are necessary, [with] the least infringement possible and are transparent, that we can publicly justify.”

She added, “The challenge has been that some people view those public health requests as more than a sort of minor infringement on their rights and freedoms.”

Having navigated multiple outbreaks over the last 40 years, Dr. Fauci said the current pushback on public health measures is unlike public responses he has seen before. He remarked that resistance to masking has become about political expression more than rights infringement. He emphasized that “the enemy is the virus. The enemy is not someone who disagrees with what I want to do.”

Despite today’s divisive atmosphere, Dr. Fauci said he remains a “cautious optimist.” “I have to believe…that ultimately the better angels will return as dominant force…and that we will return to a much more considerate approach towards the rest of the world.”

Dr. Gupta asked Dr. Fauci and Dr. Grady if they thought people expected a “certainty” in science, and how that perception has affected the pandemic response. Dr. Fauci said that “science is self-correcting. Science is seeking the truth, data, and evidence.” 

“The public has paid more attention to science during this pandemic than maybe most other times,” said Dr. Grady. “[What] comes with knowing about science and paying attention to science [is] a realization of how messy science can be, how uncertain it can be, and how things do change over time.”

Dr. Grady acknowledged there are reasons beyond misinformation why trust has diminished. “Trust was tested because it appeared we weren’t as prepared for the pandemic as we should have been,” she said. In the beginning “there [were] a lot of chaotic responses” with testing, PPE, a loss of public health infrastructure, and conflicting messages from the Federal government. 

Dr. Fauci added, “There was mixed messaging that really whiplashed a lot of people…When the leader of the country said ‘it will go away like magic’…and then you have public health leaders like myself saying, ‘we really have a problem here—it’s going to get worse.’”

Talking about how experts can best communicate policy, Dr. Fauci said the 1980s AIDS crisis showed him how important it is to pay attention to the needs of people who are impacted by public health policies. “The [AIDS] activists taught me, ‘OK, you have the science, you’re making the policy— but I’m the one who’s at risk, who is sick and dying. You can’t ignore the impact of your policy on me.’”

Asked about whether we will be living with COVID-19 long-term, Dr. Fauci said, “I hope that we get low enough in the endemicity that it really doesn’t impact you in the sense of interfering with the normal things we like to do. I don’t think we are going to eliminate [COVID-19].” 

Despite the pressure on public health leaders today, the pair said they loved their careers and encouraged students to pursue public health and bioethics. 

“Bioethics is an intellectually rigorous and exciting place to be,” said Dr. Grady.

“I would do it for nothing,” added Dr. Fauci. 

About the William C. Stubing Memorial Lecture

William C. Stubing served as President of The Greenwall Foundation for 21 years. In 2016, the Foundation established the William C. Stubing Memorial Lecture in honor of its beloved former President, who guided the Foundation to its current focus on bioethics.

Previous Lectures have covered timely topics in bioethics: the history of prejudice in pandemics, genome editing, physician aid-in-dying, and drug pricing. Past speakers are Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, University of Pennsylvania President, Dr. Amy Gutmann, and former White House health policy advisor, Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel.