As part of Slate’s project on the 80 most influential Americans over 80 in America, we spoke to some members of the list to reflect on aging, work, and life in their ninth decade and beyond—including the man who inevitably snagged the list’s top spot: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, leading member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, and America’s foremost model of calm, competent pandemic leadership. Slate talked to Fauci about the vaccine rollout, Zooming with his daughters, and how he plans to celebrate his 80th birthday in a few days. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Molly Olmstead: Do you approach your work any differently now than you did when you were younger?
Anthony Fauci: I’ve asked myself that question. Go back to the beginning of the HIV epidemic in 1981. I was 40 or 39, or whatever. To be quite honest with you, I don’t feel any different now, 40 years later, or 39 and 13 months later, than I felt back then. It’s kind of an eerie feeling, because all of those years have gone by. And I think the thread that brings it together is that we’re still being challenged by the global pandemic of HIV/AIDS.
The things that you notice are mostly physical things. When I was 40, I was running marathons, I was running 10K’s. It was very easy for me to do that. Right now, I don’t think there’s a chance in the world that I could run a marathon. I do a lot of power walking. I do that with my wife almost every day, four miles or so. It feels good. But that’s the only thing that’s really different. My energy level, everybody will tell you, that my energy level surpasses people who are 50 years younger than I am.
What advice would you give your 40-year-old self if you could go back in time?
I think I wouldn’t do much different than what I did. What I likely would tell my 40-year-old self is that I got so absorbed in the urgency and the challenge of the work that I was in, in those early years of HIV, that I did not spend as much time with my children as I should have. What I didn’t fully appreciate [was] that when you go from a child that’s a newborn to a child that’s 1 year old, if you miss a month of that because you’re in the middle of some crisis that you have to deal with, you miss an important developmental stage in that child’s life. And you miss some important things.
When you’re [young], you kind of think that you’re immortal, and your life is infinite. I’m sure you’re feeling it now. Unless you practice a spectacular degree of denial and you’re reasonably fluent in mathematics, you can do the numbers. So when you approach 80, you have to confront the reality that you’re not going to be here for an indefinite period of time. I don’t dwell on it. I don’t sit down and go, “Oh, my God, I’m approaching the end of my life.” I never, ever look at it that way. But the reality does sink in.
Do you feel your experience as someone who has dealt with such a profound amount of sickness and death has affected how you think about this?
I’m sure I have a different perspective on the happenstance of illness. I mean, obviously genetics have a lot to do with it, but look at COVID-19, it’s almost like a game of chance. You get infected, and somebody is perfectly fine, and another person gets infected—they wind up in the hospital on a ventilator and might die. So you do get a better feel of the abrupt vulnerability of people when it comes to infectious diseases. Because you could live a very healthy life, you could eat well, sleep well, exercise well, and then all of a sudden something comes along that’s a microbe that you get infected with, and you’re in real trouble.
What’s the best mistake you ever made?
The things that have been important pivotal points in my life and my career were more often than not things that I didn’t plan for. Or that just landed in front of me, and I was alert enough to seize the opportunity to just go grab it and run with it.
For example, when I first came into contact with the very first reports of people with this strange disease, which ultimately turned out to be AIDS. Five young, gay men from Los Angeles in the summer of 1981 in a report from the CDC. I thought it was a fluke, and that it didn’t mean anything. And then a month later, another report of 26, curiously, all gay men from L.A., New York City, and San Francisco. It was like one of the biggest “aha” moments I’ve had in my life.
So I did something destructive to my career path. My mentor said, “Why, in goodness’ names, are you leaving a very important trajectory of a career to study this group of gay men who have this strange disease? You’re going to be throwing away a career.” And I felt very strongly that this was going to turn out to be something much larger.
That led me into the things that I’m doing now as director of the institute. So that was something that was an accident. I could have just as easily walked away and not paid attention to it and said it was a fluke.
Is there anything in particular that you are looking forward to right now?
I’m looking forward to crushing and ending this outbreak the way we did with smallpox, the way we did with polio, the way we did with measles. I think we’re going to do it in the next year. If enough people in the United States get vaccinated … we can turn this around from a threat that’s scaring the heck out of everyone to something that is behind us.
Personally, I’d like to get back to some of the really simple things that I enjoyed, but didn’t pay much attention to. Like, going out to a movie with my wife, or going out to a restaurant and relaxing and not worrying about getting infected because you’re inside in a room with other people. You just forget those simple pleasures.
And finally the thing is, to see my daughters again. I mean, I’m getting … I wouldn’t say tired of … but just seeing them on a Zoom screen is OK, but it’s not giving them a hug.
How are you planning to mark your 80th birthday?
I’m going to have a quiet dinner with my wife, and we’re going to Zoom in the kids. So it’s the next best thing. I noted to my wife that I have never had a Christmas without the children since the day they were born. So this is going to be a monumental, landmark Christmas. Spending Christmas without your daughters when every single Christmas I’ve had, they were with us literally right around the table, doing things like decorating a tree and stuff like that. So that’s not what we’re having. But we will have it again.