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Fauci says he altered public scientific estimates based on opinion polls

Admission he lowballed estimated herd immunity threshold follows earlier acknowledgement he misled on efficacy of masks.

Updated: December 28, 2020 - 3:53pm

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Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared to admit last week that he has deliberately misled the public regarding the coronavirus — for the second time since the pandemic began.

In a Christmas Eve interview with the New York Times, Fauci acknowledged he had offered a lower estimate of the level of herd immunity necessary to stop the COVID-19 pandemic because he thought Americans would be discouraged by hearing his true thoughts on the issue. 

He recently raised his estimate on the herd immunity threshold "partly based on new science," the newspaper reported, "and partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks."

Fauci himself told the paper that he had withheld the higher estimates because polling results made him think such estimates would be viewed unfavorably. 

“When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent," he told reporter Donald McNeil. "Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, 'I can nudge this up a bit,' so I went to 80, 85."

Fauci admitted that scientists "really don't know what the real number is," though he himself estimated that the "real range is somewhere between 70 to 90 percent."

"But, I'm not going to say 90 percent," he added, because "doing so might be discouraging to Americans," according to the Times. 

Fauci's reported admission that he altered his public scientific estimates on the basis of polling numbers is not the first time the doctor has admitted to misleading the public during the COVID crisis. 

At the outset of the pandemic, Fauci — like most public health authorities — advised against wearing face masks, telling the public that doing so was unnecessary unless an individual was showing symptoms of COVID-19. 

Fauci in subsequent weeks and months made a sharp 180-degree turn on the subject of masks, advocating their universal usage and arguing that mask-wearing is critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19. 

When pressed in June on why he had initially argued against masks, Fauci said that the public health community was "concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply."

"And we wanted to make sure," Fauci continued, that the scarce PPE was reserved for "the people, namely the health care workers, who were brave enough to put themselves in [harm's way], to take care of people who you know were infected with the coronavirus and the danger of them getting infected." 

In a September interview with ABC, Fauci repeated this admission. 

"Very early on in the pandemic, in the very early months, before we even had many cases," he said, "... there was a shortage of PPE and masks for health care providers who needed them desperately since they were putting their lives and their safety on the line every day.

"So the feeling was that people who were wanting to have masks in the community, namely just people out in the street, might be hoarding masks and making the shortage of masks even greater. In that context, we said that we did not recommend masks."

Fauci claimed that, in addition to allegedly discovering that masks were effective at stopping the spread of viruses, scientists earlier this year also reportedly discovered that "cloth coverings worked as well as surgical masks."

"So the idea of a shortage of masks that would take it away from those who really need it was no longer there because anybody could get a mask," he said. 

Fauci's office did not respond to emails over the weekend seeking comment.

Fauci said earlier this month that he had accepted a medical advisory role in a Biden administration set to commence next month, a move that suggests the Biden administration's pandemic priorities may hew closely to those advocated by Fauci over the last year, including social distancing measures and mask mandates. 

In spite of widespread mask usage throughout the U.S., as well as broad reported observance of social distancing rules, positive COVID-19 tests have reached averages of around 220,000 per day over the last several weeks. 

It is unclear why those numbers have risen so high even as mitigation measures have been in place for many months, although some experts have argued that the widely used PCR test for the virus can be significantly oversensitive. 

Many of those tests, if they return a positive result, may actually just be picking up "dead nucleotides," Fauci himself cautioned in July.

Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been at the forefront of the country's response to the coronavirus since the beginning of the year. A member of the White House coronavirus task force, he was a regular fixture at press conferences throughout the spring and has made countless media appearances since then. 

Fauci was observed to have something of a falling-out with President Trump over the course of the year, with Trump calling for a more rapid return to something resembling normal life. At times, the president has openly criticized Fauci, who has warned that Americans may have to abide by masks and "social distancing" rules until as late as 2022. 

In spite of the tension between the two, Fauci has retained broad popular support in public polls, with most Americans trusting him to accurately and effectively promulgate information on the pandemic. 

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