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US: Fact check: Fauci's 2004 comments on flu vaccine, natural immunity taken out of context

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The claim: Fauci said, “The most potent vaccination is getting infected yourself”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. © Provided by USA TODAY Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

More than two years after COVID-19 was first detected, errant attempts to compare the virus to the flu continue to spread on social media.

That happened again recently when Facebook users resurfaced a video of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, answering a question about the influenza outbreak in 2004. An April 1 post of the video from one Facebook user was shared nearly 900 times in less than a week.

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In the clip from Fauci's October 2004 appearance on C-SPAN, he answered a caller's question and in part of the response said, "The most potent vaccination is getting infected yourself."

The Facebook post attempted to compare this approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which Fauci and other leaders and experts are pushing for vaccinations.

"Check out this clip of Dr. Fauci in 2004 talking about the STRENGTH of Natural Immunity," the post said. "Fast forward 18 years, what happened to this “'science?!'”

The clip was posted by multiple accounts and accrued thousands of shares.

But Facebook users are taking this clip of Fauci out of context. He is answering a caller's specific question on her flu diagnosis, he is not speaking about COVID-19. Experts say it's not reasonable to apply the same logic to both illnesses given the vast difference in transmissibility and lethality.

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USA TODAY reached out to the user who shared the claim for comment.

Fauci was talking about the flu shot, and in a specific case

The clip of Fauci came from an Oct. 11, 2004, appearance on  C-SPAN's Washington Journal, in which he was discussing the flu vaccine.

That year there was a flu vaccine shortage, after the world's second-leading supplier of the flu vaccine, The Chiron Corp., saw their company license suspended for problems at a manufacturing plant. This cut America's supply of flu vaccine almost in half and led leaders in public health to recommend healthy Americans defer getting a flu shot so high risk, elderly and young individuals could have access to the shots.

During the nearly 50-minute program, callers from around the country asked Fauci a number of questions about the vaccine shortage and that year's flu season.

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A 67-year-old woman from Minnesota called into the program to ask Fauci about her current 14-day case of the flu. She said that in the past when she got the flu vaccine she would experience flu symptoms for weeks, but when she didn't get the vaccine she would only get the flu once during the winter season.

Fauci suggested to the Minnesota caller that she may have an allergy to a component of the vaccine.

The C-SPAN host then turned to Fauci and asked him, "She's had the flu for 14 days, should she get the flu shot?"

Fauci's response is where the viral video users have been sharing begins.

"Well no, if she got the flu for 14 days, she's as protected as anybody can be, cause the best vaccination is to get infected yourself," Fauci said. "If she really has the flu, she definitely doesn't need a flu vaccine."

The interviewer asks again, "She should not get it again?" and Fauci responds, "She doesn't need it – it's the most potent vaccination is getting infected yourself."

Of course, COVID-19 didn't exist at that time, and it presents an array of threats that the flu does not.

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The death rate of COVID-19 is much higher than the flu. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 290,000 to 650,000 people die of flu-related causes every year worldwide. The mortality rate of COVID-19 is thought to be up to 10 times higher than most strains of the flu, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

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The CDC has said that compared to the flu, COVID-19 can cause more serious illnesses in some people. With COVID-19, people can also take longer to show symptoms, and they can remain contagious for longer periods of time than with the flu.

COVID-19 vaccines offer more consistent and safer protection than natural immunity

Using the Fauci clip to push for natural immunity instead of vaccines – as many online are doing – ignores several critical points.

As noted, the infection that yields natural immunity is much more likely to lead to death for COVID-19 compared to the flu.

And the caller in the 2004 clip was already infected, so the question was about whether she should be vaccinated at that point. That's a very different question than whether someone who is not yet infected should get vaccinated or await an infection and the resulting natural immunity.

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A CDC study from August 2021 confirmed that vaccination offers higher protection than previous COVID-19 infection.

“This study shows you are twice as likely to get infected again if you are unvaccinated," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

That study exhibits why Fauci's 2004 influenza vaccine comment cannot be compared to what experts have said about natural immunity and COVID-19. Vaccines for COVID-19 offer more consistent and safer protection than natural immunity.

A study from April 2021 found that people who received two doses of shots from Pfizer or Moderna had antibody levels “up to 10 times” higher than those of a natural infection.

While COVID-19 immunity provided by vaccine and prior infection are both high, neither offers 100% protection. The vaccine, however, offers more consistent protection against COVID-19, the CDC said.

The level of immunity gained after a COVID-19 infection also varies widely, which experts say leaves some people with minimal natural immunity.

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“Natural immunity tends to be strong, yes,” Shane Crotty, a professor and vaccine researcher at La Jolla Institue for Immunology, previously told USA TODAY. “The reason scientists and public health officials have been more cautious about COVID-19 is because of this big range (of immunity levels) that we’ve seen for COVID-19 in people, which seems different than some other infections.”

Our rating: Missing context

Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim that Fauci said, "The most potent vaccination is getting infected yourself" because without additional information it is misleading. This clip of Fauci answering a caller's specific question about her flu diagnosis had nothing to do with COVID-19, which didn't exist at the time and is far more deadly and transmissible.

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Our fact-check sources:

  • Washington Journal C-SPAN, Oct. 11, 2004, Influenza Vaccine
  • NPR, Oct. 6, 2004, U.S. Faces Flu Vaccine Shortage
  • CDC, accessed April 7, Similarities and Differences between Flu and COVID-19​
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine, Feb. 23, COVID-19 vs. The Flu
  • World Health Organization, accessed April 7, Global Influenza Programme
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Aug. 6, 2021, New CDC Study: Vaccination Offers Higher Protection than Previous COVID-19 Infection
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oct. 29, 2021, Science Brief: SARS-CoV-2 Infection-induced and Vaccine-induced Immunity
  • Shane Crotty, June 10, 2021, Phone Interview with USA TODAY
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine, Nov. 23, 2021, COVID Natural Immunity: What You Need to Know
  • bioRxic, April 20, 2021, Distinct SARS-CoV-2 Antibody Responses Elicited by Natural Infection and mRNA Vaccination
  • USA TODAY, June 21, 2021, Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines provide safer, more consistent immunity than infection

Contributing: Daniel Funke

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Fauci's 2004 comments on flu vaccine, natural immunity taken out of context

GOP senator plans to introduce FAUCI Act after clash at hearing .
Republican Sen. Roger Marshall (Kan.) plans to introduce a bill named after Anthony Fauci after he clashed with the nation's top infectious diseases expert at a Senate hearing this week. Marshall will be introducing the Financial Accountability for Uniquely Compensated Individuals (FAUCI) Act after he said Fauci's records were not readily accessible to the public, a spokesperson for the senator told The Hill. The FAUCI Act would require the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) website to provide the financial records of administration officials like Fauci and a list of those in the government whose financial records are not public.

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