WASHINGTON — In a contentious interview on the BBC’s “Newshour,” 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