"COVID does not define my legacy:" Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks with FOX 5

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who became a household name when COVID-19 paralyzed the world in early 2020, is stepping down after a more than 50-year career in public service.

FOX 5 spoke with Fauci, who turns 82 on Christmas Eve, to discuss his legacy, his future plans, and what he would have done differently regarding COVID-19 if he knew what he knows today.

"For the people in my field who know me prior to COVID -- COVID does not define my legacy," Fauci told FOX 5 less than two weeks before he planned to step down from public service.

The physician-scientist advised seven U.S. presidents over a career that was shaped early by the HIV pandemic and by the COVID-19 pandemic at the end.

"My legacy is probably much more defined by the 41-plus years that I have been working on HIV, developing the drugs that have led to essentially transforming the lives of persons with HIV to lead essentially a normal lifespan," he said.

Fauci said his work with HIV has resulted in more than 20 million lives saved. But he does understand that because of the attention that has been put appropriately on COVID-19, many only know him from his work over the last three years.

Fauci said dealing with COVID-19 was like trying to hit a dynamic and moving target and said the world learned more about the virus as the weeks, months and years went on. 

"Of course, had we known all of that in the beginning, there are many things we would have done differently with regard to the recommendations about masking, about physical separation and things like that," he said. "Of course."

He also adds that he doesn’t have much trouble compartmentalizing public opinion about his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

"If you look back at the track record, everything that I’ve ever done was in the purpose of preserving and protecting the health of the American public," he said.

Fauci said he promotes getting tested, vaccinated, and wearing a mask in an appropriate setting.

"The people who would hate me for telling someone they should get vaccinated, or telling someone to wear a mask. It doesn't bother me at all, because that is based on things that are completely contrary to science," he said. "I don't have much trouble with that, and I’m not running a popularity contest."

After he steps away, Fauci says the next frontier for the development of medicine and in the field of infectious disease should focus on the need for vaccines for malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.

When asked if COVID-19 helped as a whole to make us more aware of infectious diseases, Fauci said it’s a mixed bag.

"I think people are very aware now that infections are important and they can kill you," he said. "They’ve seen it in a very, very dramatic sense with COVID, which has already killed one million Americans - more than one million Americans."

"I think people are more aware of the fact that serious infectious diseases can have an impact on society, and hopefully that will allow them to do what needs to be done to mitigate against that, like, get vaccinated," he said when discussing the public’s response to spikes in RSV or a bad flu season.

Fauci added that the COVID pandemic has also generated a lot of anti-science and misinformation that sometimes has the opposite effect on people - mainly causing them to not want to get vaccinated and to have an anti-science approach. 

"That's what I mean by the mixed bag."

Fauci addressed the threats against his family from people who took issue with his vaccine and mask recommendations during the pandemic.

"For those people who have a problem with my saying that people should be getting vaccinated and then harass and threaten my wife and my children, I mean the only thing you could describe them as is just being pure cowards," Fauci says.

Fauci's notoriety was not all bad, as he'll tell you. He shares what moments have meant the most to him from being portrayed on "SNL" to throwing out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game.

"It's nice that some people, you know, idolize me and put me up on a pedestal, but I don't get impressed by that, I never have," he says. "People may not understand that or believe it, but I focus like a laser beam on what my job is, and as I said before, and I mean that sincerely and my track record has proven it, my job and my mission is to serve and protect the health of the American public."