WASHINGTON — In a contentious interview on the BBC’s “Newshour” on Friday, the president’s new coronavirus adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, said the United States had actually handled the coronavirus pandemic better than Europe, citing a discredited statistic of unknown origin.
In recent days, Atlas has eclipsed Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx as Trump’s most visible, and presumably trusted, coronavirus adviser. In that role he used his appearance on the BBC to defend aspects of the president’s widely criticized response to COVID-19.
Atlas is affiliated with the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. An expert in brain imaging, he has no experience with pandemic response but appears to have parlayed his frequent appearances on Fox News into a White House appointment.
Confronted by the BBC interviewer regarding his lack of expertise, Atlas lashed out. “You know, I have to laugh at that,” he said, adding that it was “sort of silly” to think a virologist or immunologist was needed to deal with the pandemic.
Before joining the Trump administration, Atlas made statements that called into question his understanding of the virus. He backed the push by several Republican governors to reopen their states’ economies in early May, while most public health officials, including Fauci, were urging caution. Many states in the Sun Belt did reopen, only to see significant spikes in both infections and deaths.
Later, Atlas tried to blame those spikes on antiracism protests and on immigrants from Mexico. The view of most public health experts is that when governors took the approach Atlas advocated, newly reopened restaurants, bars and other venues quickly became sites of viral transmission.
Atlas has supported the controversial strategy of allowing the virus to spread naturally until enough of the population — around 60 or 70 percent, by varying estimates — has been exposed to achieve what’s called “herd immunity,” at which point the epidemic should end on its own. That was Sweden’s goal in resisting the kinds of lockdowns most other nations instituted. That strategy failed.
Despite having explicitly and repeatedly advocated for the herd immunity approach, Atlas denied being a herd immunity proponent to the BBC, echoing a similar denial he made on CNN earlier this week. “I have never, literally never, advised the president of the United States to pursue a strategy of herd immunity, of opening the doors and letting people get infected,” he said.
While the contents of his advice to the president are not known, his record on herd immunity is unambiguous. Writing in the Hill in April, Atlas said that “infected people without severe illness are the immediately available vehicle for establishing widespread immunity.” That was around the time that Trump and many Republican governors were first growing weary of lockdowns, though those had gone into effect only weeks before.
Atlas was a proponent of that view. “The data is in — stop the panic and end the total isolation,” his Hill op-ed was titled.
He made the same point on Friday, arguing that “the impact of prolonging the lockdown is worse than the impact of the disease,” despite overwhelming evidence that lockdowns helped save lives, and that even nonfatal cases of COVID-19 have been shown to inflict serious and potentially long-lasting damage to the heart and other organs.
Atlas also believes that although nearly 190,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, the nation is on better footing, in relative terms, than many of its counterparts in Europe, where the virus has largely been contained.
At one point the BBC interviewer, James Menendez, noted that the United States has one of the highest coronavirus mortality rates in the world, a statistic that comes from Johns Hopkins University.
“You can’t get away from that, can you?” Menendez asked.
“Excuse me,” an irritated Atlas said. “You can.” He went on to say that the Johns Hopkins number was “wrong” and “incorrect.” It was not clear which statistic was errant. Trump has recently claimed, falsely, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is vastly inflating fatality counts. Atlas did not appear to be making the same argument.
Atlas said a better comparison was of “excess mortality,” a measure of how many more people died during a period of time than had been expected to, based on historical patterns.
“Europe has done 38 percent worse than the United States in excess mortality,” he said. “No one talks about this.”
Trump and Republicans have repeatedly asserted in recent weeks that excess mortality in Europe is 40 percent higher than that in the United States. The principal problem with this assertion is that it is not true. Trump appears to have simply made up the statistic, and a fact check of the claim by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found it to be false.
It is not clear where the 38 percent figure cited by Atlas comes from. He did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News. The White House also did not respond to a request for explanation. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist who has become prominent on Twitter, called Atlas “completely wrong” in his statements about excess mortality. Dr. Feigl-Ding shared an analysis by his team at the Federation of American Scientists, where he is a senior fellow, that undermines the comparison Atlas made.
📍Devastating EXCESS DEATHS—because #COVID19 is so underreported, total seasonal excess deaths (above past years) is a good measure of crisis.
Trump advisor Steve Atlas completely wrong yesterday touting that US exceeds Europe. Not true other than UK/Spain. (My team analysis) pic.twitter.com/3hnBkye4XI
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) September 5, 2020
Like many of the president’s supporters and the president himself, Atlas selectively deploys statistics that portray the nation’s pandemic in the most favorable light possible, while downplaying both past mistakes and remaining challenges.
“We’re doing much better,” he said in his BBC interview, which came on the same day that the United States saw yet another day of more than 1,000 deaths from the coronavirus.
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