Anthony Fauci M.D. ’66 addressed hundreds of graduating students during Weill Cornell Medicine’s virtual commencement ceremony on Thursday, calling upon the newly-minted healthcare professionals of his alma mater to help “face this pandemic together.”
In his video commencement address, Fauci encouraged graduating students to “be open to opportunities that unexpectedly present themselves.”
“I had the great fortune to receive my M.D. from Cornell University Medical College in 1966,” Fauci said. “Although I did not fully appreciate it at the time, the path I took after graduating medical school … prepared me well for the unexpected events that have shaped my career: HIV/AIDS, pandemic influenza, Ebola, Zika and now, the novel coronavirus.”
Two years after graduating first in his class at Weill Cornell Medicine, Fauci began working for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as a clinical associate and eventually became its director in 1984.
For over three decades, Fauci has been at the forefront of almost every epidemic and major infectious disease outbreak in the U.S. In January, President Donald Trump appointed Fauci to the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Now, Fauci has become a household name and the country’s most trusted infectious disease expert.
Fauci compared the current state of affairs surrounding COVID-19 to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that defined the early years of his career.
“We are currently in a similar period of uncertainty,” Fauci said. “We have no clear idea of how this COVID-19 pandemic will further evolve or what its ultimate impact will be: Will we have a second wave, similar to the second wave of the catastrophic influenza pandemic of 1918. If so, will we be prepared to adequately respond?”
Since graduating, Fauci has returned to Weill Cornell Medicine many times to offer his medical and scientific expertise to students, faculty and fellow alumni, according to Dean Augustine M.K. Choi.
In the face of uncertainty, Fauci implored graduating Weill Cornell Medicine students and rising healthcare professionals to embrace one another’s expertise, and to welcome unexpected career paths.
“I remember clearly, when I was at the NIH in the early ’90s, that the recognition of a new virus, later named HIV, caused me to make an abrupt turn in my own career. Only decades later, could I adequately reflect on how enormous an impact that virus has had on the global community,” Fauci said.
“A staggering number of lives have been lost in just a few months,” Fauci added, in reference to the tragic U.S. death toll of the pandemic — which passed 100,000 this week and continues to rise.
“Healthcare systems in certain cities and regions of our country have come perilously close to being overrun, and our return to some form of normality will neither be fast nor easy,” Fauci said.
In New York City, the rapid growth of the virus in March and April placed a significant toll on the city’s hospital system. Besides personal protective equipment and ventilator shortages, many hospitals faced an urgent need for additional frontline healthcare workers to help care for the flood of coronavirus patients in their emergency rooms.
At Weill Cornell Medicine, almost two-thirds of the fourth-year medical students chose to graduate early in April to address the need for front-line healthcare workers at the epicenter of the pandemic.
Fauci acknowledged that medicine moving forward will not be the same and emphasized that continued efforts of the medical community are essential “to overcome this challenge.”
“Now more than ever we need your talent, your energy, your resolve and your character,” Fauci said.
After congratulating the Weill Cornell Medical College Class of 2020, Fauci expressed his hope for the next generation of healthcare providers and encouraged graduates to draw upon the pillars of their medical education at Cornell: “dedication to excellence, exceptional patient care and collaborative research and discovery.”
“I look forward to the many contributions you will make to medical science and patient care in decades to come and in so many areas that will ultimately transcend the current challenge of COVID-19,” Fauci said.