To his supporters, Scott Atlas is the man who injected a welcome dose of common sense into the Trump administration’s coronavirus response at the most critical point of the pandemic last year. To his critics, he is the man whose irresponsible advice led to thousands of deaths. Right now, however, he is a man fumbling in his pocket for the mask he has just been told to wear by the stern-faced server at one of Washington DC’s most respectable restaurants.
Atlas is waiting for me outside Le Diplomate, a French bistro beloved of the American political class. “So, you don’t eat indoors at all?” he asks as we sit down.
At my insistence, we are sitting outside at a table on bustling 14th Street — a perfect spot to see and be seen. But Atlas is a Californian with little taste for outdoor dining on a breezy February day, and little patience for my flimsy reason for doing so: study after study has shown the risk of Covid-19 transmission is significantly higher in indoor spaces such as restaurants and bars. Atlas dismisses my concerns with a characteristically bald rejection of the scientific consensus. “There’s no data to suggest that restaurants, particularly, are at any risk whatsoever,” he states. “No significant risk,” he says.
The combative radiologist burst into public life last August as Donald Trump’s coronavirus adviser. Appointed to the White House’s Covid-19 task force, he lobbied energetically against everything its members had been advocating — widespread testing, face masks and, most importantly, lockdown — before leaving government in December after the former president’s election defeat.
Atlas, however, remains an influential voice. Joe Biden may have replaced Trump as president but America is still a country divided between lockdown evangelists and lockdown sceptics — with Atlas one of the most prominent members of the latter group.
Just days after our meeting, Texas and Mississippi declared a complete end to their Covid restrictions, including mask mandates. Biden responded by condemning what he referred to as “Neanderthal thinking”. But Atlas is convinced it is those who listen to the scientific consensus who are not thinking clearly enough.
Back in August, Trump introduced Atlas to the US public as “a very famous man who is also highly respected”.
In reality, he was famous mainly to regular viewers of Fox News, where he frequently appeared as a supporter of Trump’s pandemic strategy. In doing so, he became one of a small but vociferous group of academics pushing for an end to almost all Covid-imposed social restrictions. While he did not have a background in infectious diseases, Atlas was able to lend some intellectual heft to Trump’s claims that the pandemic was overplayed.
It is easy to understand what Trump saw in his closest Covid adviser. As well as an impressive-sounding list of credentials, including a fellowship at the rightwing Hoover Institution think-tank, Atlas looked good on television, with his chiselled cheekbones and all-year-round tan. He also shows a Trumpian confidence in his own opinions and a willingness to pour scorn on those who disagree.
“They didn’t know the data,” he says of his fellow task force members — some of the most respected public scientists in the world. “They had never brought in a research paper. I was the only one who brought in the data.”
His opponents have accused him of peddling pseudoscience, and worse, of deliberately trying to force the Covid infection rate up in an attempt to reach “herd immunity” — the point where so many people have antibodies that the virus can no longer spread freely.
Dr Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, says: “The only things he managed to successfully spread were misinformation and, indirectly, based on his incompetence and ignorance about infectious disease, millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths from Covid-19.”
Robert Redfield, then head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was overheard complaining in a hyperbolic jibe last September: “Everything [Atlas] says is false.”
The criticisms infuriate Atlas. He insists he did not want to “open the barn door” to coronavirus, and that his argument was far simpler: lockdowns cause more harm than they do good, and so they should never be used to curb the disease. We have only just sat down at our street-side table, but Atlas wants to get this clear straight away.
“The data shows that the bulk of non-pharmaceutical measures have an impact on slowing spread,” he says. “The severe and significant restrictions on behaviour do not. That is the data.”
There are many studies showing that lockdowns have slowed the spread of the disease, but Atlas is not interested in them. He says the clearest evidence comes from a paper published in January by the European Journal of Clinical Investigation, which used case studies from 10 countries to measure the effectiveness of a range of behavioural restrictions in reducing the infection rate during the first wave of cases last year. The researchers concluded that less restrictive measures such as social distancing guidelines, discouraging travel and bans on large gatherings had a greater effect on case numbers than stay-at-home orders and business closures.
1601 14th Street NW,
Washington DC 20009
French onion soup $14
Steak tartare $17
Warm shrimp salad x 2 $44
Perrier water $8
Fleuriet Sancerre x 2 $36
Total (inc tax) $130.90
One of the reasons behind this conclusion was that Sweden and South Korea both suffered less than might be expected, given their less restrictive policies. But both are outliers in different ways. South Korea had a state-of-the-art mass test-and-trace system not replicated in other countries; and while Sweden has fared better than many European countries, it has done noticeably less well than its closest neighbours with which it shares many demographic similarities.
So what does Atlas make of Sweden’s relatively poor Covid performance as compared with Denmark, Finland and Norway in particular?
“I think [Sweden] did some things right and some things wrong,” he says. “They totally failed in protecting the people who are at risk of dying. That’s the problem.”
But they’ve had more deaths, I say, significantly more deaths, than other countries —
“Than who? Than France? Than Belgium? Than Spain? No.”
No, I reply, but they’re a much more dispersed population. “No,” he says. “You’re making up a reason to explain it. You’re making up a reason.”
Would he at least say that Sweden largely followed his blueprint, and so its success or failure reflects on whether he is right? “I don’t know. I haven’t made an effort to look in detail at everything that Sweden did.”
I am surprised by Atlas’s lack of familiarity with the Swedish case, not least because it had been a cause célèbre among lockdown sceptics — even if it became less so when the country changed course earlier this year and began to impose stricter measures to curb another surge in cases.
But I am also hungry, and thankfully the server is here both to take our order and change the topic of conversation.
Atlas orders the French onion soup — a warming dish for a Californian feeling the cold — followed by the warm shrimp salad and a glass of Sancerre. I opt for the restaurant’s famous steak tartare, plus the same main course and drink as my guest. There are only so many times I want to disagree with him.
Besides, there are times when Atlas has advanced unpopular views that later proved to be justified. He was right, for example, that schools are not significant accelerators of the disease, and his calls for them to reopen are now being echoed by the Biden administration and by teaching unions. And he may have been correct that we were closer to herd immunity than we previously thought, especially in places that have been hit hardest by the disease.
Our starters arrive, and Atlas digs hungrily beneath the grilled cheese crust of his French onion soup, while I savour the soft but spicy punch of the steak tartare. They are not adventurous choices, but Le Diplomate is not a place to come for culinary adventure: it is the place to come for the reassuring crunch of freshly baked pieces of baguette slathered with salted butter.
Soothed by the arrival of the food, I try another potentially thorny topic of conversation. What exactly happened when Atlas and other Trump advisers successfully argued for the CDC to change its guidance on coronavirus testing so that it no longer recommended testing people without any symptoms? The policy caused ructions within the White House task force, and the guidelines were soon reversed after widespread public criticism that cutting tests would hide the full extent of the pandemic.
Atlas’s argument is that asymptomatic cases account for only a tiny minority of transmissions. “It’s very small and in some cases almost zero,” he says.
Many infectious diseases experts disagree. CDC scientists estimated in January that at least 50 per cent of cases are passed on by people not showing any symptoms. A review of positive test results around the world undertaken by researchers in Australia came up with a figure of 17 per cent.
As with most of Atlas’s arguments, there are studies that back up his claims, even if they are in the minority. One of the major pieces of evidence comes from researchers at the University of Florida, who found a much lower rate of transmission from asymptomatic cases within households, of just 0.7 per cent.
Should we not test asymptomatic people anyway? Surely it is better to know where the disease is than not?
“If that’s how you want to look at the world, then don’t ever go into a restaurant, that’s fine,” Atlas says. “But don’t tell everybody else they can’t go into the restaurant. If you want to walk outside with seven masks wrapped around your face and an oxygen tank, that’s OK, but it’s not OK to tell everybody else to do that.”
Ah yes, masks. It has taken over an hour, and our salads — crisp and green, and accompanied by four shrimp sitting fatly in a pool of beurre blanc — are nearly devoured, but here we are at what I knew was likely to be one of the most sensitive topics of our conversation.
Masks, Atlas argues, should be worn only where social distancing cannot be maintained. As evidence, he points to a controlled trial in Denmark where researchers asked some participants to wear masks outside the home and others not to, and then tracked the incidence of Covid-19 in both groups. They found negligible difference in the number of cases between the groups, and concluded that masks worn outside the home did not cut infection rates by 50 per cent.
The trial has been used by anti-lockdown campaigners to argue that masks do not work, but its authors made no such claim — not least because they measured only whether masks cut infection rates for the wearers and not whether they stopped the virus spreading from them to others. “The findings . . . should not be used to conclude that a recommendation for everyone to wear masks in the community would not be effective in reducing Sars-Cov-2 infections,” the authors warned.
Our plates are now cleared and the breeze is picking up. I put on my coat and scarf and raise the subject of a piece he wrote in The Hill, a Washington-focused political newspaper.
In it, Atlas and his co-authors attempted to calculate the number of years of life lost thanks to lockdown measures. Adding together the effect of missed chemotherapy appointments, cancelled cancer screening appointments, suspected strokes that were never reported and a string of other knock-on effects, they concluded that 200,000 years of life had been lost for every month of shutdown.
The piece seemed to articulate better than any why Atlas is so adamantly opposed to strict lockdown measures. But my question is: if his case is that lockdowns cause more harm than good, why did he not calculate the number of years of life they saved? Why add up the harms, but not even attempt to enumerate the benefits?
“The point of the study was we’re ignoring the years of lives lost from the lockdown, so we calculated that,” says Atlas.
What if there was data showing that locking down only the particularly vulnerable — perhaps the over-70s and those with underlying conditions — while allowing others to mix freely, would have a net beneficial impact? After all, this is what was advocated by the Great Barrington Declaration, the anti-lockdown credo that Atlas promoted while in government.
“No, I don’t think anybody should be made to be cautious,” he says.
This to me is his most surprising answer. He has insisted that he is simply being guided by the scientific data. But if the data showed the opposite? His advice to the president would have been the same.
“This is a philosophy thing,” he says. “This is not anything else. It’s just a personal belief system.”
He continues: “I think this is really more of what I feel. The big issues that were exposed here by this pandemic are about the role of government, civil liberties, these big questions . . . I’m worried that you’re never going to be able to travel unless you can prove that you’ve had the vaccination, or that you must take a test to walk on to the Stanford University campus, or we have to test six-year-olds with a swab every other day or whenever you want to say.”
So much has happened since Atlas left government. What does he make of it now? Does he regret attaching himself so closely to the former president? What does he think those four months did to his scientific reputation and career? “Listen, President Trump, you can dislike him, hate him, whatever you want to think about him, but he’s a leader.”
Did you like him? “Yes.”
And what, I ask, did you make of the election? “I thought he lost.”
Would you take the job again? I settle the bill with our hovering server. We have now been at our table for three hours and it is past time to leave.
“I’m not sure,” Atlas says, standing up and removing his mask once more from his pocket. “I think my first inclination was probably better, which was: I’ll advise, but from California. That would have worked out better.”
Kiran Stacey is the FT’s Washington correspondent
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