March 18, 2020 at 12:43 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
HIV activists hail Fauci amid coronavirus crisis — but it wasn’t always that way
ACT UP protest at the National Institutes of Health on April 21, 1990. (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading voice of medical authority as the world confronts the coronavirus, is no stranger to viral epidemics — nor protesters who once displayed him in effigy in frustration amid new infections and rising death tolls.

At the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early 1990s, Fauci was at the frontlines as director of the National Institutes of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, a role he began in 1984 and continues to this day. During that time, Fauci’s research contributed to the understanding of HIV’s destruction of the immune system and therapy that has significantly contained the disease in more recent years.

Now, as a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci has provided sage advice, calmed fears, and — at times — acted as voice of accountability for the Trump administration amid efforts to contain COVID-19.

As the coronavirus epidemic began to unfold, Fauci himself compared the situation to the early days of the HIV epidemic — as well as other diseases — because “there’s still a lot that’s unknown.“

“It’s not that different than the very early years of the HIV epidemic, of the anthrax attacks, of the concern about the pre-pandemic bird flu,” Fauci said March 9 on CNN’s “New Day.” “Everything has a little bit of a different twist to it. It’s not exactly the same, but there’s always that uncertainty that gets people very anxious.”

Under Fauci’s leadership, NIH in 1987 developed AZT, or zidovudine, the first antiretroviral approved for the treatment of HIV, although the epidemic continued. After more research, when combinations of drugs were seen to be effective against HIV, NIH cleared the way for more effective therapy in 1996.

Carl Schmid, executive director of the HIV & Hepatitis Policy Institute, was among the advocates fighting HIV/AIDS who hailed Fauci’s work both then and now.

“No one does a better job at explaining and conquering infectious diseases, whether it is HIV/AIDS or coronavirus, than Tony Fauci,” Schmid said. “Not only is he one of the world’s top infectious disease doctors but he knows how to articulate complicated issues and on top of it, understands how to address them utilizing an all parts of society approach. He has been there since the earliest days of the AIDS crisis and can take all of what he has learned and done over the years, including working with presidents of both parties, to now deal with the coronavirus.”

But it wasn’t always a happy relationship with HIV/AIDS activists. As the HIV/AIDS epidemic raged and continued to the claim the lives of thousands of gay men, Fauci was the target of activists who accused him of not moving quickly with new medicines to fight the disease.

ACT UP, the grassroots network that held “die-in” protests to draw attention to mass fatalities from HIV/AIDS amid silence from the U.S. government, held a massive demonstration at the National Institutes of Health on April 21, 1990, as reported at the time by the Washington Blade and published in a subsequent article now available in the archives.

According to the article, written by veteran Blade reporter Lou Chibbaro, Jr., more than 1,000 demonstrators marched through the sprawling grounds of the NIH “using placards, costumes, bull horns and red-colored tape to draw attention to their demand for faster government action on AIDS research programs.”

One photo taken at the event by the Blade — but never published until now — shows three protesters dressed in black robes and skull masks in the style of the Grim Reaper. 

The three hold a large coffin-like box with letters reading, “Fauci: Resign Now — Release Compound: O.” Another holds a sign reading, “120,000 AIDS Deaths, Courtesy NIH.” Another holds up a pole within a bloody head mask on top and a sign underneath designating the effigy as “Fauci.”

“Scores of drugs and alternative treatments languish untested while more than 200 new cases of AIDS are diagnosed each day,” stated ACT UP in papers distributed at the demonstration.

Police reportedly arrested 61 protesters during the four-hour demonstration and charged them with trespassing, including five members of ACT UP/D.C.

Following the demonstration, Fauci reportedly said he was sympathetic to ACT UP’s cause, but believes its allegations were untrue. Further, Fauci was quoted as saying NIH implemented recent changes to direct more resources to fight infections diseases like HIV/AIDS. 

ACT UP protest at the National Institutes of Health on April 21, 1990. (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

A chief critic of Fauci was Larry Kramer, a longtime HIV/AIDS activist who helped found ACT UP in the late 1980s and remains hostile to this day. As recently as 2015, Kramer in an op-ed for The Advocate faulted Fauci for failing to live up to his promise to find a cure for HIV infection. (Kramer didn’t respond to a Blade email this week to comment on Fauci’s approach to the coronavirus.)

Kramer’s harsh words may be persiflage. Fauci was quoted in a 2012 article in the New Yorker about Larry Kramer as saying he’s come to regard the activist as a friend, crediting his work with instituting a major change in medicine against infectious diseases.

But to say the relationship between HIV/AIDS activists and Fauci was entirely frosty would be inaccurate. On Dec. 22, 1990, also as reported by the Blade, when President George H.W. Bush met with gay men with AIDS at NIH, Fauci was among those who took part in the discussion.

Also at the meeting was first lady Barbara Bush and George Bush, Jr., otherwise known as future President George W. Bush. It was the first time “a sitting U.S. president formally met with open gays,” the Blade reported at the time.

The presidential party, Fauci reportedly said, listened to the gay men in attendance and sat in on a support sessions for people undertaking NIH’s experimental AIDS drug trials. Some of the men had HIV, some had developed AIDS, the Blade reported.

The elder Bush shook hands with each of the men and presented them with a commemorative presidential tie pin, according to the Blade.

“He was really touched,” Fauci was quoted as saying. “This was not just a formality. He was really interested.”

The meeting, Fauci reportedly said, was open to the White House press corps and news photographers took photos of the elder Bush shaking hands with the men.

“But much to his disappointment, Fauci said, almost all the photos appearing in the nation’s daily newspapers the next day were of a different part of the NIH visit — when the president cradled babies with AIDS in the NIH pediatric ward,” the Blade reported.

Asia Russell, executive director of the New York-based group HealthGAP, was among the HIV/AIDS activists at the time and told the Blade this week that work was responsible for pushing Fauci into supporting the community.

“Dr. Fauci has been the target of AIDS activists’ campaigns and protests in the past, and those protests delivered results — they helped him see how access to the benefits of science is not neutral, it’s driven, or hindered, by politics, and that remains true today,” Russell said.

Thirty years after the massive protest at NIH, the nature of the virus inspiring fear among the public and responsible for the deaths of thousands worldwide has changed, but Fauci’s work has not.

Russell said Fauci in his role within the White House Coronavirus Task Force has brought to the fore shortcomings in the Trump administration’s approach to COVID-19, which she said “has been a disgrace.”

“It’s an embarrassment that Dr. Fauci, a trusted voice in public health, has to testify before Congress and make the rounds on the Sunday shows to contradict the lies the president is telling,” Russell said.

(Washington Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

In media appearances and testimony before Congress, Fauci has made clear the severity of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, President Trump has falsely said Americans are at “low risk” of contracting the disease, predicted “it will go quickly” and said testing was available to everyone.

“It is a failing. Let’s admit it,” Fauci said last week in the testimony before the House on the lag in testing availability. Days later, Trump declared under questioning in a Rose Garden press conference he would “not take responsibility” for the delay in tests, which weren’t delivered on a massive scale until last week.

When Trump said a vaccine for coronavirus would be ready in two months (which the White House retconned as a reference to an Ebola vaccine), Fauci told the reporters it would be more like 12 to 18 months even on an expedited basis.

Fauci has also given credit to Trump, who continues to tout his travel ban on China amid early reports about the coronavirus of the evidence of his prescience about the danger. Addressing reporters last week in a White House gaggle, Fauci said that move “absolutely” made a difference in limiting new infections in the United States.

Amid self-imposed quarantines, travel bans and recommendations people not meet in groups with more than 10 people, Fauci has also reassured the American public any perception the federal government is overreacting is misplaced.

“I’ll say it over and over again: When you’re dealing with an emerging infectious diseases outbreak, you are always behind where you think you are if you think that today reflects where you really are,” Fauci said. “That’s not word speak. It means: If you think you’re here, you’re really here, because you’re only getting the results; therefore, it will always seem that the best way to address it were to be doing something that looks like it might be an overreaction.”

Michael Ruppal, executive director of the AIDS Institute, said Fauci is a trusted voice because “his communication is straight forward and direct and isn’t convoluted by political spin.”

“Dr. Fauci has been a trailblazer and leader in the HIV/AIDS pandemic since the beginning,” Ruppal said. “He has been a trusted federal partner to the HIV/AIDS community, and we appreciate having him continue to lead efforts at NIH after all these years and advancements. Dr. Fauci has been thrust forward as the federal face of the U.S. response and his integrity and honesty speaks for itself throughout his handling of this uncharted and unprecedented territory regarding COVID-19.”

But Fauci isn’t the only member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force who cut their teeth on epidemiology during the time of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Among them is Deborah Birx, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator & U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy at the State Department, whose three-decade-long career has focused on HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research and global health. 

At a White House briefing on Monday, Birx recalled the fight against HIV/AIDS during the height of the epidemic, urging Americans to exhibit the same tenacity in the struggle against the coronavirus.

“We had another silent epidemic: HIV,” Birx said. “And I just want to recognize the HIV epidemic was solved by the community: the HIV advocates, and activists who stood up when no one was listening and got everyone’s attention. We’re asking that same sense of community to come together and stand up against this virus.”

Russell had favorable words for both Fauci and Birx in their approach to the coronavirus pandemic amid her general criticism of the Trump administration.

“The administration’s delays, dissembling, and political games are killing people,” Russell said. “Dr. Fauci and Ambassador Birx know that activists are watchdogging this effort and are ready to raise the alarm.”

Also on the White House Coronavirus Task Force with a history of HIV research is Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control. In addition to his work against the coronavirus, Redfield is seen as the point-person for the Trump administration’s plan to beat HIV/AIDS in the Untied States by 2030.

In an interview last year with the Washington Blade, Redfield credited the LGBTQ community for coming forward to participate in testing during the early of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, saying that led to medical advances that helped thwart the disease.

But Redfield notably hasn’t been present at the White House briefings with the rest of the coronavirus task force. Meanwhile, media reports have indicated White House officials have blamed him for the sluggishness in the rollout of coronavirus testing capabilities.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere rejected the notion Redfield’s absence was of any significance. “CDC is based in Atlanta, which is where Dr. Redfield is needed, and he’s actively involved in the work of the task force and stopping the spread of COVID-19,” Deere said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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