US President Donald Trump (L) listens to White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Scott Atlas speak during a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on September 23, 2020, in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
This article originally appeared here on Salon.com
Scott Atlas, one of President Trump’s special coronavirus advisers and a faculty member at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif., is causing a minor fracas among students and faculty at the elite university. Specifically, Atlas’ recommendations on coronavirus public health measures fly in the face of scientific consensus, faculty says — a charge that Atlas denies, and which he has threatened litigation over.
During a Faculty Senate meeting at Stanford University late last month, the college’s president and provost were asked whether Dr. Scott Atlas should face university sanctions for positions he has taken about the novel coronavirus pandemic that go against the scientific consensus. (As the faculty noted, Atlas is a neuroradiologist, not an epidemiologist or a scholar of infectious disease.) At the meeting, similar questions were raised about the university’s relationship with the Hoover Institution, where Atlas is a senior fellow. The Hoover Institution is a conservative think tank located on Stanford’s campus that has supported a laundry list of prominent right-wing statesmen over the years, from Condoleezza Rice to Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz.
Unsurprisingly given the politics of his employer, Atlas’ public statements tend to delight conservatives and alarm scientists who study public health and infectious diseases. Atlas recently tweeted that masks do not work to prevent infection (an unsupported claim, and one which Twitter wound up taking down for being misleading); previously, he claimed publicly that the threat of the coronavirus is greatly exaggerated. Atlas also claimed that summer civil rights protests were to blame for coronavirus outbreaks, as well as proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, two more claims for which there is no evidence.
Despite being described by Trump as “one of the great experts of the world,” Atlas is reported to not have expertise in infectious disease mitigation or public health. Most recently, Atlas raised eyebrows last week for appearing on Russian state broadcaster RT, which is registered with the Justice Department as an agent of the Russian government.
David Spiegel, a medicine professor and associate chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, claimed during the late October meeting (which occurred before the RT interview) that Atlas is the “latest member of the Hoover Institution to disseminate incorrect and unscientific information about the coronavirus pandemic,” according to Stanford News. He also accused Atlas of violating the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics and claimed that he may have additionally violated Stanford’s Code of Conduct.
University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne responded by citing the college’s Statement on Academic Freedom, although the provost acknowledged the validity of engineering professor Stephen Monismith’s concern about a New York Times report that some of Trump’s senior economic advisers had
The White House on Saturday unleashed on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, following his comments to the Washington Post that criticized the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, including Dr. Scott Atlas, who the President has relied on for advice on handling the coronavirus.
“It’s unacceptable and breaking with all norms for Dr. Fauci, a senior member of the President’s Coronavirus Taskforce and someone who has praised President (Donald) Trump’s actions throughout this pandemic, to choose three days before an election to play politics,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement to CNN on Saturday evening.
Deere took issue with Fauci’s comments where the doctor seemingly praises Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign. Fauci told the Post that the Democratic nominee’s campaign “is taking it seriously from a public health perspective.” While Trump, Fauci said, is “looking at it from a different perspective.” He said that perspective was “the economy and reopening the country,” according to the Post.
“As a member of the Task Force, Dr. Fauci has a duty to express concerns or push for a change in strategy, but he’s not done that, instead choosing to criticize the President in the media and make his political leanings known by praising the President’s opponent— exactly what the American people have come to expect from The Swamp,” Deere said.
Fauci, a leading member of the government’s coronavirus response, said the United States needed to make an “abrupt change” in public health practices and behaviors, according to the Post. He said the country could surpass 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day and predicted rising deaths in the coming weeks.
“Dr. Fauci knows that the risks today are dramatically lower than they were only a few months ago with mortality rates falling over 80%. The Trump Administration, through the work of the Task Force, continues to surge testing, PPE, personnel, and capacity to protect the vulnerable, help schools reopen, and respond to conditions on the ground,” Deere said.
In Friday’s interview with the Post, Fauci also criticized Atlas, a neuroradiologist and Trump’s hand-picked coronavirus adviser, for his lack of expertise.
“I have real problems with that guy,” Fauci said. “He’s a smart guy who’s talking about things that I believe he doesn’t have any real insight or knowledge or experience in. He keeps talking about things that when you dissect it out and parse it out, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Atlas responded to Fauci on Twitter, tweeting on Saturday night:
Atlas, a neuroradiologist, not an infectious disease expert, strongly supported a decision in August to revise federal guidelines to de-emphasize the need to test people without symptoms, according to two sources familiar with the process. He shared his view with state officials, including Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and several others in Florida, according to transcripts of public events and accounts from private meetings in that state.
“The purpose of testing is to stop people from dying,” Atlas said during one stop, captured on video. “When you start introducing closure of schools because people have positive, asymptomatic tests, that’s sort of not the purpose of testing.”
“I think, Dr. Atlas, we’re in agreement on focusing strategies in school on people who are symptomatic,” DeSantis said in another joint news conference that day.
Their push to de-emphasize tests coincided with a dramatic drop in testing across Florida, even as the country was careening toward a fall coronavirus surge. A CNN analysis of the Florida state official numbers, aggregated by the Covid Tracking Project, shows that testing dropped off at the end of July and early August, with a peak seven-day average over 90,000 tests per day on July 18. Six weeks later, in early September, the seven-day average dropped by nearly half, with fewer than 48,000 tests per day, and hovered between there and 60,000 during the fall.
Though both Atlas and DeSantis declined to discuss their views with CNN for this story, they have articulated them in public. Some state and local officials believe the pair was influential in taking Trump’s anti-testing pronouncements and helping to turn them into public policy. And the drop-off in testing is of deep concern to some. It took place as positivity rates remained high, in the range that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers indicative of high community spread.
Asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers are still contagious, experts say. A lack of widespread testing makes it harder to map the disease as it spreads and to warn those at risk of illness.
“There’s no question more people are going to die,” says Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a critic of DeSantis’ approach to testing and other matters of the governor’s pandemic management. “We are flying blind without tests.”
At the moment, the nation is experiencing another surge of illness. Daily case numbers are reaching levels not seen since late July, and Florida is starting to see its numbers go up as well. Experts say that widespread testing, including of asymptomatic carriers, is critical to limiting the spread of the virus.
A White House spokesman claimed Atlas had never advocated reducing testing, despite the