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Filling Fauci's shoes: Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo is HIV expert and a lot of fun at parties

Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo was a clear and down-to-earth explainer of what was happening during the pandemic, often on CNN and other networks. She's pictured here at a COVID press conference in April 2020.
ANDREA MABRY
/
UAB
Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo was a clear and down-to-earth explainer of what was happening during the pandemic, often on CNN and other networks. She's pictured here at a COVID press conference in April 2020.

This week, the National Institutes of Health announced who will be replacing Dr. Anthony Fauci as the head of its infectious disease organization: Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, an HIV expert who comes to the job from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Fauci served almost 40 years as the head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, and he was both loved and vilified in the role. He retired in December, after holding the post since 1984.

Marrazzo, a Harvard-educated physician and epidemiologist in her early 60s, was frequently on television news as an expert during the height of the COVID pandemic. She will be taking on a big job — running an institute with a $6.3 billion annual budget.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, a professor at Emory University and president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, says Fauci and Marrazzo have a few things in common. "They're both of Italian descent, they're both HIV physicians, and they're both superb communicators," del Rio says.

But Marrazzo is truly her own person, he adds. She has striking white curls and bright blue glasses, and she delivered her coronavirus cautions in a clear, down-to-earth way, with dashes of humor. Del Rio says he counts her as a friend, and he's thrilled with the news of her NIH appointment. "I love Dr. Fauci, he's great. But at the same time, we need to get over it. The Fauci era's over, now it's the Marrazzo era," del Rio says.

Jeanne Marrazzo grew up in Pennsylvania near Scranton. She was valedictorian of her high school class and went to Harvard for undergrad, and then medical school at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Before she took her current job – running the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham – she spent years as a professor at the University of Washington. For Jennifer Balkus, an epidemiologist with the public health department of Seattle and King County, Marrazzo was a key mentor and one of the people who judged her dissertation.

"She finds these ways to encourage and push and foster growth and development in people, but at the same time allowing them to be the person that they want and need and should be," Balkus explains. "She brings her true self to spaces, and invites people into her life."

Another friend and colleague, Sharon Hillier, an OB-GYN professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says the world of infectious diseases is particularly challenging now: "A lot of infections that used to only be found more in the tropics moving into the subtropics as climate has changed, a burgeoning epidemic of sexually transmitted infections, and global health, including HIV, but not just HIV."

Hillier says Marrazzo has a wide breadth of expertise that will serve her well when she takes up her position at NIH in the fall. "I think what's remarkable about her is not that she's known in a singular area, but that she's broadly respected in a broad range of areas," Hillier says. In addition to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, Marrazzo is an expert in infections caused by anaerobic bacteria, an expert on women's health and she became an expert on COVID, Hillier says. "She's known as an exquisite clinician. She's known as an exquisite teacher."

Hillier worries a little for her friend, noting all the attacks Fauci faced. "Nobody's going to be universally beloved," she says. And she's grateful Marrazzo is up for the challenge.

Friends describe Marrazzo as a straight shooter, a kind colleague, with a great laugh who loves going out for dinner. She's openly gay and, Balkus says, Marrazzo is a joyful and fun presence at an annual conference they both attend. "Part of the meeting culminates in a gala dance, and Jeannie is always, always on the dance floor," she says.

Marrazzo is one of three women who have recently been named to prominent roles overseeing U.S. health policy. Dr. Mandy Cohen leads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, who leads the National Cancer Institute, has been tapped to head up all of NIH, succeeding Dr. Francis Collins. But the Senate hearing on Bertagnolli is on hold, as Sen. Bernie Sanders uses it as a bargaining chip with the White House over drug prices.

Marrazzo does not require senate approval to assume her role.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 3, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Dr. Sharon Hillier's last name in some references.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.