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Full transcript of "Face the Nation" on January 24, 2021

1/24: Face The Nation
1/24: Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx 46:09

On this "Face the Nation" broadcast moderated by Margaret Brennan:

  • Anthony Fauci, M.D., Director, National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden
  • Amb. Deborah Birx, M.D., Former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator

Click here to browse full transcripts of "Face the Nation."

MARGARET BRENNAN: I'm Margaret Brennan in Washington and this week on FACE THE NATION, President Biden takes office and is immediately faced with overwhelming challenges. His first priority: COVID-19. America came together last Wednesday to honor its forty-sixth President in somewhat subdued and heavily fortified inauguration festivities. The day coincidentally marked the one-year anniversary of the first coronavirus diagnosis in the U.S.

(Lady Gaga performing during inauguration)

MARGARET BRENNAN: There were some bursts of color in the much smaller and mostly masked ceremonies. Some old traditions were reimagined due to the pandemic. Memorable moments have gone viral. But in the chilly Washington setting the sense of history in the making was powerful. President Biden wasted no time addressing the herculean challenges ahead.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Four hundred thousand Americans have died. That's more than have died in all of World War II. Four hundred thousand. This is a war-time undertaking.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Our last President also waged war on the coronavirus, but the new administration says its war effort will be different. There are new guidelines on mandatory mask-wearing, lower vaccination goals, and a promise to revamp a confusing and chaotic vaccine rollout.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Please, wear a mask.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll talk to the President's top medical adviser Doctor Anthony Fauci. Plus, we'll take a stunning look back at the dysfunctional handling of the pandemic during the Trump administration, with a key figure in that effort, Doctor Deborah Birx.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think President Trump appreciated the gravity of the health crisis you were describing?

DEBORAH BIRX: I think the President appreciated the gravity in March.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But where is the vice president in all of this?

DEBORAH BIRX: The vice president knew what I was doing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You mean he knew that you were telling the governors privately to do things that the President publicly was making light of.

DEBORAH BIRX: He knew what I was doing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Doctors Fauci and Birx, they're just ahead on FACE THE NATION.

Good morning, and welcome to FACE THE NATION. The country has a new administration, though, we're still facing a crisis of monumental proportions. Nearly twenty-five million Americans have been diagnosed with coronavirus so far. Right now the rate of new infections is starting to slow but the death toll is not. Last week an American died of COVID-19 every thirty seconds. And experts are now warning that in addition to being more contagious, the new variants could also be more lethal.

We begin with the President's chief medical adviser, Doctor Anthony Fauci. Good morning to you, Doctor. Good to have you back.

ANTHONY FAUCI, M.D. (Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden/Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases): Good morning, Margaret. Good to be with you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, said Friday the B111 strain that was first detected in the U.K. may be associated with a higher degree of mortality. The day prior you said it did not. So, which is it? Is it more deadly?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, the data that came out was after they had been saying all along that it did not appear to be more deadly. So that's where we got that information. But when the British investigators looked more closely at the death rate of a certain age group they found that it was one to-- per thousand we'll say, and then it went up to 1.3 per thousand in a certain group. So, that's a significant increase. So, the most recent data is in accord with the Brits are saying. We want to look at the data ourselves, but we have every reason to believe them. They're a very competent group. So, we need to assume now that what has been circulating dominantly in the U.K. does have a certain degree of increase in what we call virulence, namely the power of the virus to cause more damage, including death.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And that is projected to be the dominant strain here in the U.S. by March, according to the CDC. Your organization, the NIH, has just started testing to see if the existing vaccines prevent infection from some of these variants. What do we know about whether the vaccine works against B117 or B1351, which is coming out of South Africa?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, there-- there are actually two different ones. When you look at the effect of the change, this lineage that is the U.K. lineage that is now in at least twenty states in the United States. The vaccine induced antibodies, namely the vaccines that some of us have gotten and that we're rolling out. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines seem to continue to be protective against the mutant strain. It is a very minor diminution. But the cushion that you have of efficacy is so large that it's not going to negatively impact. A little bit more concerning with the South African isolate, namely the mutant that is now prevalent in South Africa, particularly its negative impact on some of the monoclonal antibodies that have been given for treatment, that it can, in some respects knocks out their efficacy. It looks like it does diminish more so the efficacy of the vaccine. But we're still within that cushion level of the vaccines being efficacious against these mutants. Having said that, Margaret, we look at this and follow this very, very carefully because these things do evolve.


ANTHONY FAUCI: And what we will do and are doing already is making preparations for the possibility that down the pipe, down the line, we may need to modify and upgrade the vaccines. We don't need to do that right now. The best way to prevent the further evolution of these mutants is to vaccinate as many people as possible with the vaccines that we have currently available to us.


ANTHONY FAUCI: That's the best protection against this evolution.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to get to that in a second. But just to clarify, the Biden administration says in its new plan it wants to increase surveillance and sequencing of viruses, basically, do more research to figure out what's actually swirling around in the population. Do we know for a fact that the South African strain, B1351, is not in the United States right now?

ANTHONY FAUCI: I can't say definitively, Margaret, that we know as a fact. What has been looked at thus far, it has not come up on any of the surveillance, but we need to expand greatly our genomic surveillance.


ANTHONY FAUCI: We know that it had not been at the level that we would have liked. But there's a lot of movement right now at the CDC level, including some input from the NIH and other organizations to dramatically increase the what we call genomic surveillance.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-Hm. So, we just don't-- we don't know yet. On the vaccine--

ANTHONY FAUCI: It is unlikely but we can say definitively, yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Understood. On the vaccines you just drove home that point of how important it is to get this out there. I want to play some tape here for you and get you to clarify when U.S. taxpayers can expect to get their vaccine.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN (December 8): At least one hundred million COVID vaccine shots into the arms of the American people in the first hundred days. A hundred million shots in the first hundred days.

(Begin VT)

ANTHONY FAUCI (CBS SUNDAY MORNING): You know, the goal that's been set, which I believe is entirely achievable, is to have a hundred million people vaccinated in the first hundred days.


ANTHONY FAUCI (CBS SUNDAY MORNING): Primary and boost, yes.





(End VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, Doctor, in that exchange you seem to be promising a bit more than the President is. Can you just bottom line it? How many people will be fully vaccinated within a hundred days?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Yeah. Yes, so-- so let me clarify that, because there was a little bit of a misunderstanding. What we're talking about is a hundred million shots in individuals. So, a shots-- as in other words, when you get down to, let's say, a certain part of the hundred days. At the end of a hundred days, you're going to have some people who will have gotten both shots and some will still be on their first shots. What the President is saying a hundred million shots in the arms of people within a hundred days.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, reportedly the trans-- transition team projections are that, that's more like sixty-seven million people by April, by the end--


MARGARET BRENNAN: of a hundred days.


MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that an accurate number?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Yeah. Right. If-- yeah. Yeah, that is-- well, I-- I haven't done the math myself--


ANTHONY FAUCI: --but it sounds very much like the accurate number where you're having people who will have gotten two doses and then some that are still on their first dose. When you add them all up and you look at shots, it's a hundred million shots in the arms of people within the first hundred days.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay. So, the Trump administration's Health and Human Services secretary said on this program in December that just with Pfizer and Moderna's vaccine, they could get to a hundred million shots by the end of February. President Biden's goal puts that benchmark out in April. Are you deliberately setting expectations low?

ANTHONY FAUCI: No. No, that's not the case, if you go back and look at the facts of actually what had been done in the first like thirty-eight days I believe that in the former administration, I think maybe two out of those days had reached a hundred million. And the average along that period of time was about four hundred and fifty thousand per day. This is hard. Now what we've got to realize that although more recently there have been a couple of days where you've had a million, that has been predominantly in areas that are relatively easy from the standpoint of getting that done in a nursing home or in a situation in a hospital setting. If you look forward with the challenges that we'll be having getting it out into the community, that is not easily accessible, getting it to people that are not uniform in the sense--


ANTHONY FAUCI: --of being health care providers or people in nursing homes, I still think that that challenge is really, first of all, it's going to be a floor--


ANTHONY FAUCI: --not a ceiling. It's-- it's not going to be easy to do that. I think there is this misperception out there, Margaret, because we've hit one million a day for a couple of days that when we get out into the community, it's going to be really easy to do that. That's not the case. It is going to be a challenge. I think it was a reasonable goal that was set. We always want to do better than the goal you've set --


ANTHONY FAUCI: --but it is really a floor and not a ceiling. The most important thing, the message that gets lost in this --


ANTHONY FAUCI: --back and forth, Margaret, is that we've got to vaccinate as many people as we possibly can as quickly as we possibly can.


ANTHONY FAUCI: And that's what President Biden made as the point. I mean that was the --


ANTHONY FAUCI: --major point that he was making.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Understood. And-- and we just want to help clarify that. I want to ask you, as you know, we spoke to your former colleague, Doctor Birx, on Friday for this program. She laid out problems that, yes, we're attached to President Trump, but go far beyond that, deep problems within that health care infrastructure of this country that will contribute to continued problems. Do you think there needs to be a 9/11-type commission to look at what went wrong?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, I'm not you know, Margaret, it's not up to me to say that. I think we really do. I mean, whether you want to call it a 9/11 commission, but we really need to look into some of the deficiencies in our health care systems at the local level. One of the things that I believe I had mentioned to you in a previous appearance here, Margaret--


ANTHONY FAUCI: --that I felt we should do much better is a greater collaboration and coordination--


ANTHONY FAUCI: --between the federal government and the local, the state.


ANTHONY FAUCI: We've got to do that in a coordinated way. Instead of just telling the states--


ANTHONY FAUCI: --you're on your own, do it on your own.


ANTHONY FAUCI.: That clearly does not work very well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Doctor Fauci, thank you for joining us. We look forward to having you again.

Up next, a candid interview with the former coordinator of President Trump's coronavirus task force.


MARGARET BRENNAN: Doctor Deborah Birx, the former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, is now at the CDC as a special adviser to the Center for Global Health. We sat down with her Friday. She had wanted to wait until after President Biden had taken office to talk about her time in the Trump administration.

(Begin VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Biden coronavirus czar, for lack of a better term, told reporters, "When it comes to the vaccine, what we're inheriting is so much worse than we could have imagined." Is that a political statement? Is that accurate?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX, M.D. (Former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator/CDC Special Adviser to the Center for Global Health): You know I've been trying to process all the last eleven months because I-- it's really important that we understand what worked and what didn't work. I took extensive notes during the entire process because I didn't want to lose track of what we need to do to make our response better in the future. One of those critical areas is this idea of federalism on which the United States was built. But that can be taken to extremes. And so the mantra always was federally-supported and state-managed, locally executed.

MARGARET BRENNAN: That was the Trump plan?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: That was the mantra. But what does support mean? And what does federal support mean? And I think really an understanding of what states need to translate guidance into implementation, what state needs-- states need in interpreting data together. They only are seeing their data. But it's really important that they understand what's happening in their entire region because people have been mobile.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think it's just bad architecture being handed off to the Biden administration? Are they being set up for failure?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Oh, I don't believe-- and I-- I-- if I thought that was true, I wouldn't be sleeping right now because what was very important to me is from even before the election is to make sure that people had access to data and the data that we were seeing. And I think the more people can understand where the virus is where it's increasing where it's decreasing and react to even the slightest uptick. And that's a place where we're still slow.


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: We're still slow in reaction. You need to react when you first see that tiniest little uptick in test positivity. That's the moment to tell that population, we need you to do these things.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You were often at odds with the CDC, is what I've been told. Is that true?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I know the CDC well, so it was diff-- let me just be very clear, it was more difficult for them because I knew where the gaps were. And so when I came in, I really asked for those gaps to be addressed. I was also very pushy, and the one thing that's been taken completely out of context is when I was talking about not trusting the CDC data, it had to do with the ethnicity and race of the fatalities early on because of the delay in that reporting; our delay for death certificates that have all that information on can be up to thirty days.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So we're at the end of February. CDC official gives a briefing to reporters that tanks the markets when she says that within the community there may be a virus spreading and it could cause severe disruption to daily life. Doctor Fauci goes on television a few days later and says the risk to Americans remains low. You're watching this and what are you thinking?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: So I'm in South Africa. We're yelling at the CNN TV-- television saying this is going to be a pandemic because the Chinese-- what I saw from China, when you overwhelm your hospitals, you have to know that you have broad-based community spread before that happens. Yet they weren't seeing it. And that really worried me because what we were looking for is people with symptoms. And so when people were coming into the country, we were looking for people with symptoms.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But why wasn't it obvious to them, when you're watching this on TV and saying this is so clearly a pandemic that's coming to hit us hard?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I have learned from the things we've missed. This is exactly how we missed the HIV pandemic. If you're only looking for sick people, you miss a lot of the-- what is really happening under the surface. And so I was always worried that there was a big iceberg under the surface and we were just seeing the top of it. So, when we were questioning people who came into this country about symptoms rather than testing everybody who came into the country, that's when I started to get really worried. At the same time there was a single individual in the White House that had been calling me since January.

MARGARET BRENNAN: That was Matt Pottinger?


MARGARET BRENNAN: The Deputy National Security Adviser?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Because I have-- I've known him and I've known his wife for a very long time. We've worked on pandemics together. Both of us were in Asia during SARS. And so we understood how serious this can go.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Matt Pottinger asks you to come from the State Department to the White House.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: And I said no about twenty times.


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Well, from the outside, everything looks very chaotic in the White House. I had spent--


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: --the first three years of this administration trying to stay out of the swirl, trying to protect the PEPFAR program. We had extraordinary cuts, obviously, every year.


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. It's what's changed the trajectory of the pandemic around the world, both for HIV and TB. I had no interest in going into a political space. I'm not a political person. I'm a civil servant. It never occurred to me to go into the White House until I could see that we were missing pieces that I thought were very important in the response. And so after many weeks of saying, no, no, no, the President announced the new task force with the vice president in the lead. They said this would be very technical, and that I would have a very technical position. And because I thought that I could be helpful, which is the only reason I go and do anything. If I think I have something to add, I feel like it's my obligation to the American public to go in and do that. That's what a civil servant is supposed to do.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You were a colonel in the Army?


MARGARET BRENNAN: An immunologist. You were appointed by President Obama to work on AIDS relief, as you mentioned, at the State Department. Yet, your name in the history books is going to be associated with President Donald Trump. How does that sit with you?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Well, you know, this is what worries me. If we start looking at technical civil servants as belonging to a political party, we will lose the ability for highly qualified civil servants to come and help. If we start saying if you come in and do this, you are then going to be part of the political apparatus, that is going to be very dangerous for this country.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you feel like your work is misunderstood as political?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I think pandemics are always political. That's what, I mean, I've worked in, you know, sixty countries. Every pandemic is political because you have to make policy changes to confront them, and policies are often political.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You worked on AIDS, which is a highly politicized virus--


MARGARET BRENNAN: --in sub-Saharan Africa. But did any of that prepare you for the politics you encountered here with this pandemic in this White House?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: No. No. White Houses function in a pretty-- a pretty bureaucratic way, and most of the agencies function in a very predictable and bureaucratic way. But when you remove the infrastructure of the civil servants, then you end up with a lot more very quick right turns, left turns, right turns, left turns, and that-- that becomes less predictable and less able to manage that kind of response and change. And so that's why I kept extensive notes from every meeting, daily reflections to really understand what I was seeing. I wrote a daily report, over three hundred and ten of them that went to senior leaders. We created--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did President Trump read them?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I don't know. I don't know. I sent them up through to the vice president. I had very little exposure to--

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you did brief President Trump?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I had very little exposure to President Trump.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think President Trump appreciated the gravity of the health crisis you were describing?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I think the President appreciated the gravity in March. It took a while after I arrived in the White House to remove all of the ancillary data that was coming in. I mean there was parallel data stream coming into the White House that were not transparently utilized. And I needed to stop that where people were--

MARGARET BRENNAN: You mean outside advisers?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Outside advisers, coming to inside advisers. And to this day, I mean, until the day I left, I am convinced there were parallel data streams because I--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Disinformation?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I saw the President presenting graphs that I never made. So, I know that someone-- or someone out there or someone inside was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the President. I know what I sent up and I know that what was in his hands was different from that. You can't do that. You have to use the entire database --

MARGARET BRENNAN: Who was doing that?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: To this day I don't know. I know now by watching some of the tapes that certainly Scott Atlas brought in parallel data streams.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the chief of staff is not saying, wait a second, this is our official coordinator, listen to her and her only? Listen to you? No one was saying that?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: No one said that to me.

MARGARET BRENNAN: To the President?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I-- I don't know if they were saying it to the President.

(End VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN: We've got a lot more of our interview coming, so don't go away.


MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll be right back with a lot more from Doctor Deborah Birx. Stay with us.


MARGARET BRENNAN: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION. We continue our conversation with Doctor Birx.

(Begin VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think the President was just distracted by the political implications and the campaign?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: You know, I always wonder that, and, I mean, the worst possible time you can have a pandemic is in a presidential election year. I think the White House personnel were very focused on this pandemic in March and April. I think once the country began to open and it was clear to me that they weren't going to follow my really gated criteria that I had worked hard on.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How to open restaurants, how to let people dine indoors --

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I combined all of that together for these great gating criteria. So in calculating everything with the slow reopening, I didn't think anyone could get to Phase 3 until August. And you can see in the states that followed either that criteria or a similar criteria, that's how long it took them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Were there COVID deniers in the White House?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: There are people in the White House and I think people around this country, because I've had the privilege to meet them and listen to them and hear them, because I wanted to hear what people were saying. There were people who definitely believed that this was a hoax.


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I think because the information was confusing at the beginning. I think because we didn't talk about the spectrum of disease, because everyone interpreted on what they knew. And so they saw people get COVID and be fine.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you don't blame the President's own language of calling some of this politically motivated, a hoax? It was a phrase he used at one point.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: When you have a pandemic where you're relying on every American to change their behavior communication is absolutely key.


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: And so every time a-- a statement was made by a political leader that wasn't consistent with public health needs that derailed our response. It is also why I went out on the road because I wasn't censored on the road.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You felt the White House was censoring you?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Well, if you've noticed, I was not able to do national press. The other thing that was very important to me is I was not going to go outside of the chain of command. And so if our White House comms group did not put me out, I didn't ask to go out. I-- because there was so much leaking and so many parallel stories being leaked to the press that did not have grounding in truth that I didn't want to ever be part of that slippery slope. I know people started it with good intentions of trying to inform the American people, but then it became a way that they could silence those who didn't agree with them. And so I knew that every time I had a significant disagreement in the White House that within days a story would be planted.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Who was doing that?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I think a lot of people were doing that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think the administration was suppressing vital information to win the election?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I don't know what their motivation was. I know that I was so frustrated--


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: --that I realized that the only way, if I could not get a voice internally, that I could get a voice out at the state level because I could see the governors on the governor's call weekly and I could see how deeply they were concerned about every one of their citizens. Most of them were not in the middle of an election campaign. I want to make it clear this was just not Debbie Birx. There was a coalition of-- of four of us at the beginning, from Steve Hahn to Bob Redfield to myself to Tony Fauci. We would make sure that we could get the information out to the public in one way or the other. It's why I sent the information to all of them every morning--


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: --because I never knew who would have the ability to do press.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did you ever consider quitting?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Always. I mean why would you want to put yourself through that, every day? Colleagues of mine that I had known for decades-- decades in that one experience because I was in the White House decided that I had become this political person, even though they had known me forever. I had to ask myself every morning, is there something that I think I can do that would be helpful in responding to this pandemic? And it's something I asked myself every night. And when it became a point where I could-- I wasn't getting anywhere and that was like right before the election, I wrote a very detailed communication plan of what needed to happen the day after the election and how that needed to be executed. And there was a lot of promise that that would happen.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because you knew at that point that the election was a factor in communication about the virus?


MARGARET BRENNAN: Did you ever withhold information yourself?


MARGARET BRENNAN: Some people felt you became an apologist for President Trump. They look at that moment in the briefing room.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP (April 23, 2020): Then I see the disinfectant which knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or-- or almost a cleaning?

MARGARET BRENNAN: You were sitting there and he looked at you and he asked about ultraviolet light and heat--


MARGARET BRENNAN: --and you-- and you start talking about fevers. You didn't say no.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: No. See, this is the-- no.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP (April 23, 2020): Deborah, have you ever heard of that? The heat and the light relative to certain viruses, yes, but relative to this virus?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX (April 23, 2020): Not as a treatment.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: He was not speaking to me. He was speaking to the DHS scientist that was two seats over from me--


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: --that entire time. When he finally turned to me and said, is it a treat-- could this be a treatment, I said, not a treatment. You can look at the transcripts. Not a treatment. But that moment was-- that was completely lost. And then there's, you know, skits on Saturday Night Live.

HEIDI GARDNER (SNL/Broadway Video): We all mess up sometimes. You threw the ball wrong. I didn't say, don't drink the bleach. It happens.

KATE MCKINNON (SNL/Broadway Video): Right.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: When you're a scientist who's grounded themselves in data and combating epidemics and working with communities and working with governments to change the future of people's lives for the better and then you get-- this is what-- when you talked about, was I prepared for that? No, I wasn't prepared for that. I didn't even know what to do in that moment.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Sometimes people say, well, Tony Fauci, when that happened to-- to him, he would sort of gently come back up to the podium and set the record straight.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Well, he was given the opportunity to do that, though.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you don't feel-- you don't feel you were given the opportunity to respond?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Not until he turned to me and said, could this be a treatment? And I said, not a treatment. You know people then want to define you by the moment--


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: --and I understand-- I under-- look, I understand how perceptions go. I understood that to go into the White House and try to support a comprehensive coronavirus response by utilizing the strength of the federal government would be a terminal event for my federal career, which is part of the reason why I didn't want to do it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: A terminal event?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: A terminal event. I know that I wouldn't be allowed to really continue successfully within the federal government. You can't go into something that's that polarized and not believe that you won't be tainted by that experience or how people interpret you in that experience. So I knew that part of it. I didn't want that to happen.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And this will be the end of your federal career?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Yeah. I will need to retire probably within the next four to six weeks from CDC.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And how have you made peace with that, that this pandemic, that you're leaving in the midst of this, that you will be associated with it?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: What was reassuring to me all along is I knew this would be studied. I knew that the e-mails, the reports that I wrote, the request to expand testing, the "how to improve" therapeutics, all of that, all of that would eventually come to light. Maybe not in my lifetime.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You feel you'll be vindicated?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I'm not looking to be vindicated. In that moment, I think my service was important. I think it was important to make progress in testing. I think it was important in making progress with some of the therapeutics. And I think it was important to really-- we had great innovation in vaccines. I was focused solely on the mission, and the mission was to try to save as many American lives during this pandemic as possible. And so I couldn't get distracted on vindicating myself or getting the information or telling the, you know, coming back to the press and saying that's not what happened. That would waste my energy in that moment of staying focused completely on that data--


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: --and ensuring that I was seeing everything that was going on.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I read a Washington Post profile of you and it said, "When she's working on a vital public health issue, Birx will do whatever is necessary as long as she thinks she can make a difference."

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: True. And it hurt my family. You know all of this-- I have two daughters in their thirties who had to live through this and watch their mother, these things said about their mother, to become a skit, I mean. I have two grandchildren, daughters. You know, I think, I felt the whole time that I also had to be serious to be taken seriously, and I couldn't ever let emotion come into this, that no matter how frustrated I got, no matter how beaten down I got, I had to keep pushing as hard as I could. This tested my resilience because it tested my family and the things that were said that were so untrue, all of that about Thanksgiving.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You were accused of gathering with people outside your household because you went to a beach house with them?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: There was no one outside of my household. I have one household. We happen to live between two houses because I had to protect them from me when I was out on the road. When I came back I quarantined. But if I had an emergency at that house, I wore a mask the whole time because I had to protect that household at all cost. I have a ninety-two-year-old mother and a ninety-six-year-old father and a-- a daughter that's thirty-eight weeks pregnant. And so the implication that I wouldn't follow CDC guidance-- I followed CDC guidance and that's what protected me. I mean I was on the road for six and a half months. I was in the White House during the hot-- one of the hottest--


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: --hot spots of viral transmission and I remained negative because I followed the CDC guidelines. That's why I know they work and that's why I take it very seriously.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, this summer, you gave an interview.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX (August 2, 2020/Selbyville, Delaware): What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And then President Trump tweeted. He blasted you for saying that. Did you ever speak to him after that?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I hadn't seen him for months before that or months after that, but that was like-- that was a--

MARGARET BRENNAN: You were the coordinator of the COVID task force.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: That was an extraordinary moment because I also got yelled out by the speaker, who I have tremens-- I mean, obviously--


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: --women have gone through a lot to get in their positions. I have tremendous respect for women and women leadership.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Speaker Pelosi said she didn't have confidence in you because you were working for President Trump.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (August 3, 2020/CNN): Because I don't have confidence in anyone who stands there while the President says, swallow Lysol, and it's going to cure your virus. You know it will kill you, and you won't have the virus anymore.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: And so that was very hard because I have known her from the HIV world, and I have tremendous respect for what she brought early on. So, in my mind, she's a political hero for what she has done in HIV, which, you know, I've spent a lifetime on, along with TB--

MARGARET BRENNAN: So that stung?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Oh, that was hard. But she's not the only one, I think she gave voice to what a lot of people were thinking of, how could you? I think they looked at going into the White House as somehow supporting a political party or a political individual. There are technical people that are brought in for their technical expertise.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you often were perceived as explaining some of the things President Trump said rather than correcting him.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Well, when people asked me a question I feel like I have to respond with what my perception of that moment was.

(End VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN: When we come back, Doctor Birx talks about masks, or the lack thereof, in the White House.


MARGARET BRENNAN: We want to pick back up with Doctor Birx, talking about the moment last spring when she and the task force realized they had a serious problem.

(Begin VT)

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Everyone knew that. Everyone knew that from, I would say, March-- March 8th on. Because you only had to look at the slopes of the curves in these major metropolitan cities to understand what was happening and understanding if you're seeing that rate of hospitalization, how much community spread there was.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you were trying to get Americans just to wear masks. And the President himself was undermining you. He wasn't wearing one. Is there ever a way to make that scenario work?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Well, you have to, because that's the President. So you have to figure out how to get that message out when you can't get it out from the head of the country. And that's our job. You don't give up. You can't ever in any moment when American lives are at stake, say, well, this is just too hard. I'm giving up.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But where's the vice president in all of this?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: The vice president knew what I was doing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You mean he knew that you were telling the governors privately to do things that the President publicly was making light of. When he was saying you don't really need to wear a mask, or pushing to reopen the economy faster than your guidelines would allow, Mike Pence knew that?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: He knew what I was doing because--

MARGARET BRENNAN: And he supported it?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: --I don't-- I'm not a person who would go out on their own and not do, you know, I wouldn't go--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, why-- why would you have to be sneaking around? You're the head of the COVID task force and tens of thousands of Americans are dying. Why is that a covert operation?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Because if this isn't working and you're not going to get that to work, you have to find another solution.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Leaving it up to the states, is that the way it should be in a pandemic, is the fundamental question?


MARGARET BRENNAN: Tell me about some of the resistance from governors because you're going out there and you're telling them to wear a mask, to limit indoor dining. And for some of these Republican governors, that would mean going against the head of their party to do what you're telling them to do.

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: You know, I don't know if that was as much as the dynamic as they were dealing with Republican legislatures and legislators. You needed every single level of government then to work together to ensure that, again, we're talking about behavioral change of American citizens.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How much responsibility lies on the shoulders of the governors running these states?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: A lot. A lot. We have to be consistent. Sturgis was not okay. Birthday parties, not okay. Bringing together family members indoors, maskless, none of this. We have to be very clear to the community. And, yes, we're going to make mistakes. We all make mistakes, we're human. If you made a mistake, if you had a gathering, at least get tested, wear a mask around those vulnerable, assume you got exposed and are infected and wear a mask around those vulnerable.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But how did the task force allow the President, who calls himself a germaphobe, to get COVID himself? How did that happen?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: There were only two people who regularly wore a mask in the White House.


AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Myself and Tyler Ann McGuffee, the support person that I had from HHS.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the staff around the President was not wearing a mask? He's the commander in chief. This is a national security risk. How is that possible?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I think people believed wrongly that testing-- testing would be adequate.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So how is that possible?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I think they believe that testing is a surrogate for a public health intervention.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But did you say-- the President of the United States needs to wear a mask. Did you press Mike Pence on that? Did you press Mark Meadows, his chief of staff?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: There are multiple communications about masking. Remember when I was talking about the stream of data coming in? They were mixing data that didn't have anything to do with the relevance of masking as a public health measure to changing into masking as a personal protective measure.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But did you ever say you're misunderstanding this? You need to wear a mask. These are close quarters and you're way too close to the President of the United States? You're nodding, yes, you had that argument?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: Not with the President. I mean I-- I didn't have that kind of access, but to certainly people around the President. Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And they just didn't take it seriously?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I just want to make it clear people were concerned about the President and wanted to protect the President. They believe that testing would be a reasonable substitution for people masking.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How sick did the President actually get?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I don't know. I don't know.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did anyone ever say this is a national security risk and we need to nail down who brought this in and who infected the commander in chief?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I never heard those conversations.

MARGARET BRENNAN: There was no serious contact tracing that happened after the fact?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I don't know if there was contact tracing or not.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What was your biggest mistake?

AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX: I always feel like I could have done more, been more outspoken, maybe been more outspoken publicly-- publicly. I didn't know all the consequences of all of these issues. When you're put into a new situation and you only know one person in the White House, you know, and you don't understand the culture of the White House, it's very difficult to get your footing. I'm not making excuses. I'm just saying I didn't know how far I could push the envelope.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You wish you pushed harder?


(End VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN: We spent nearly ninety minutes talking to Doctor Birx. We'd been tested, and we were seated ten feet apart in a well-ventilated facility. An extended version is available through our digital network, and in a special edition of our new podcast, Facing Forward.


MARGARET BRENNAN: We want to check in with senior foreign correspondent Liz Palmer in London.

ELIZABETH PALMER (CBS News Senior Foreign Correspondent/@CBSLizpalmer): Good morning. Here's a sobering statistic: Although the number of infections is at last coming down here, England now has the worst per capita coronavirus death rate in the world.

(Begin VT)

ELIZABETH PALMER: Gravediggers in North London were hard at work this week, making more room. Hospitals are full of people sick with the so-called U.K. mutation, which new data suggests does kill more people. Stark public warnings like this one reinforce the national lockdown.

MAN: Look them in the eyes and tell them you're doing all you can to stop the spread of COVID-19.

ELIZABETH PALMER: But there is good news here, too. Britain's vaccine rollout is the third fastest in the world, about to hit the six million mark. Europe by contrast is having a rough time. Vaccinations there got off to a slow start, and now supplies are running low, thanks to manufacturing problems. So lockdowns in some places are getting stricter. The Netherlands has imposed a curfew for the first time since the Second World War, though dog walkers are exempt. The fastest vaccine rollout is in Israel. It started with the elderly, but now even teenagers are getting their COVID shots.

(End VT)

ELIZABETH PALMER: And, finally, there was huge international relief this week when the U.S. rejoined the World Health Organization, where it will add real muscle to the efforts to get vaccine to the developing world. Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll be right back.


MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll be talking to Doctor Scott Gottlieb later today. You can see it on our website or listen through our Facing Forward podcast.

For FACE THE NATION, I'm Margaret Brennan.

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