Dr. Anthony Fauci made his final appearance in the White House briefing room on Tuesday, triggering chaotic scenes as reporters bombarded him with questions about the origins of COVID-19.
He delivered a message to Americans to get booster vaccines and reflected on his time as one of the country’s top scientists, but Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was forced to step in as journalists shouted questions.
‘We have a process here,’ she said with a glare at a reporter in one of the back rows.
‘I’m not calling on people who yell and you’re being disrespectful to your colleagues, and you’re being disrespectful to our guests.
‘I will not call on you if you yell and also you’re taking time off the clock, because Dr. Fauci has to leave in a couple of minutes.
‘I’m done. I’m not getting into a back and forth with you.’
Dr. Anthony Fauci returned to the White House briefing room for a final time to urge Americans to get another COVID-19 vaccination as peak winter season approaches
But White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stepped in as fractious journalists shouted over one another to ask questions about the origins of COVID-19
‘I will not call on you if you yell and also you’re taking time off the clock,’ she told journalists
It marked the latest clash between reporters and officials.
While television journalists in the front rows can expect to ask questions every day, those sitting further back – or coming armed with awkward questions – feel hard done by when their raised hands are ignored.
The day was meant to mark Fauci’s impending retirement. He was returning to the podium where he became a household name at the start of the pandemic, and where he would occasionally contradict President Donald Trump’s wilder comments about COVID-19.
The 81-year-old steps down after 54 years of public service
He used the occasion to hammer home a public health message, urging viewers to get the latest booster.
Fauci’s prominence rose in the previous administration, when he appeared regularly alongside then President Donald Trump in the White House briefing room
At times Fauci struggled to hide his exasperation with Trump and his handling of the crisis
‘We know it’s safe. We know that it is effective,’ he said.
‘So my message and maybe the final message I give you from this podium, is that please, for your own safety, for that of your family, get your updated COVID-19 shot as soon as you’re eligible, to protect yourself, your family and your community.’
And he suggested it was a good idea to get tested before sitting down with relatives for Thanksgiving.
‘When we’re gathering at a family gathering for Thanksgiving or for Christmas, or for any other holiday as we get into the winter, it makes sense that you might want to get a test that day before you come into a place in which you might be infected and spread it or other people,’ he said.
But when the briefing was turned over to questions, he faced a barrage of queries about some of the hot button, partisan issues raised by the pandemic.
What he had done to investigate the origins of the pandemic?
Did he think gain-of-function experiments – making viruses more dangerous to test the impact of variations – were safe?
And was it appropriate to fund EcoHealth Alliance, which used its money for coronavirus research in China, putting it at the heart of conspiracy theories about the emergence of COVID-19.
It was a reminder of how Fauci had become a punchbag for conspiracy theorists, libertarians and conservatives, who turned him into a hate figure.
Jean-Pierre stepped in to shut down the questions, leading to pushback from some journalists.
Anthony Fauci departs. He has headed the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984
‘She has a valid question about the origin of COVID,’ said Simon Ateba, one of the loudest members of the briefing room’s awkward squad. ‘Dr. Fauci is the best person to answer.’
‘I hear your question,’ responded Jean-Pierre, ‘But we’re not doing it the way you want it.’
It came just after Fauci had mused on lessons learned from the pandemic, and expressed his concern about divisions across America.
‘When I see people in this country because of the divisiveness in our country … not getting vaccinated for reasons that have nothing to do with public health, but have to do because of divisiveness and ideological differences, as a physician, it pains me,’ Fauci said.
‘I don’t want to see anybody hospitalized, and I don’t want to see anybody die from COVID. Whether you’re a far-right Republican or a far-left Democrat, doesn’t make any difference to me.’
Fauci has headed the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, since 1984.