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NIH head Francis Collins talks coronavirus, Anthony Fauci, and $1.3 million Templeton Prize

The West Conshohocken-based foundation is giving its 50th annual award to the man who runs the National Institutes of Health

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins spoke about the coronavirus at a May 7 U.S. Senate committee hearing. He is winning the Templeton Prize for his leadership in science and religion.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins spoke about the coronavirus at a May 7 U.S. Senate committee hearing. He is winning the Templeton Prize for his leadership in science and religion.Read moreAndrew Harnik / AP

Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and a longtime advocate for the coexistence of religion and science, on Wednesday was named the winner of the $1.3 million Templeton Prize for his “integration of faith and reason.”

The annual award, administered by the John Templeton Foundation of West Conshohocken, is given to people in various intellectual or religious disciplines who use scientific insight to understand humans’ place in the universe.

Established in 1972 by investor Sir John Templeton, an American-born British subject who lived in the Bahamas, the prize has been overseen in recent decades by family members who live in the Philadelphia area. Scientists have won in the past, but the requirement that the winner make use of a scientific approach was added this year. Previous winners include Mother Teresa, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and physicist Freeman J. Dyson.

A physician with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, Collins helped identify genetic variants associated with type 2 diabetes and cystic fibrosis, among other illnesses, and later oversaw the Human Genome Project, the vast effort to decipher the genetic code of life, which culminated in 2003. In 2006 he wrote the bestseller The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

In an interview, he said he was “quite blown away” by the prize, valued at 1.1 million British pounds, to be given in a virtual ceremony later this year. Collins, 70, who grew up on a Virginia farm, spoke about the hunt for answers to the coronavirus, the challenge of running the NIH during a pandemic, and his nightly phone calls with longtime friend Anthony Fauci, who leads one of the agency’s 27 units: the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You’re a geneticist by training. What do we know so far about the role of genetics in how sick someone becomes from the coronavirus?

We don’t know a whole lot, but it’s certainly a critical question. Why is it that some people who you would think are not at higher risk, without chronic disease, get very sick, and on the other hand sometimes people in their 80s or 90s … just shrug this off?

There’s something going on there, but we don’t have enough data yet. You wonder what kind of resilience genes do they have.

One shouldn’t assume this is heredity in the strictest sense. There is a lot about the individual that may play into this. Some of it may be your previous exposure [to other viruses], or your exposure to this virus. Did you get a massive exposure, or did you just get a few viruses floating into your system?

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I suspect most people have little idea how you can tackle the specific problem of COVID while running the entire NIH. Give us an idea of a recent day.

It is focusing on everything from basic science to clinical trials: diabetes, heart disease, rare disease, and common disease. I have a wonderful team of senior leaders who oversee that so I can basically, in a circumstance like this, turn my attention to this crisis and be confident that NIH is going to move along effectively.

I’m probably spending 95% of my time on [COVID-19], and I think that’s what I’m called to do. Helping with vaccines that we all know are essential, and treatments, moving forward with diagnostics. That’s what I’ve been focused on since I got up this morning at 3:30 a.m.

With respect to vaccines, what kind of guidance are you providing?

We are trying to come up with every possible technology that could get us what we need, then encourage the scientists who have those skills to move as fast as possible and to work together so they can learn from their successes and their failures.

Probably not all of those will make it over the finish line, but we don’t want to miss the one that will. We learn a lot by working together rather than working in secret.

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I’m the cochair of ACTIV [Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines, a government-industry partnership]. We want to make sure all the great ideas are being tossed around the same table.

The Templeton Prize honors people for leadership in science and spirituality, among other areas. You have written about how both are important to you. How does your faith inform your pursuit of science?

I didn’t start out as a believer. I was an atheist when I was a grad student studying chemistry and physics. As a medical student, I realized my efforts to understand really deep questions about life and death were not really being helped that much by the reductionist form of science going on around me.

For me, science is both an incredibly exciting intellectual challenge and detective story, but it also is a way of understanding nature and appreciating God’s creation. I can’t really separate who I am as a scientist from who I am as a believer. They coexist quite comfortably together.

Well, I wasn’t suggesting that one precludes the other.

Although plenty of people do say that.

But there are other scientists who are religious. They don’t necessarily let the two worlds intersect.

Or they do, but they don’t talk about it. Scientists tend to look for the exit when somebody brings that up.

Anthony Fauci, the head of NIAID and a point person on COVID, sometimes has to correct inaccurate information from the White House. Do the periodic conflicts get in the way of the important public health message?

He’s an incredible public servant and a dedicated scientist and a wonderful human being. I’ve known Tony for 30 years. Tony is both a phenomenal leader, communicator, and scientist of the highest repute.

Tony and I talk virtually every night, some time between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. You will not meet a more dedicated public servant than Tony Fauci.

So you think he is managing the conflicts OK?

I think he is unable to do anything other than telling the truth as he sees it, in terms of what the public health risks are.

He will not sugarcoat that, even if people don’t want to hear the message.

What was your reaction to the Templeton Prize?

I was totally stunned. I was aware of the prize and aware of some of the people who previously received it, starting with Mother Teresa. I never dreamed I could possibly aspire to be on the same list.

I’m still trying to get over it and wonder if they made a mistake.

Do you have plans yet for the financial aspect of this prize?

I don’t. My wife and I are in deep discussion about that. We will certainly want to make substantial contributions to charities that we care about.