Scott Atlas, the right-wing talking head turned Trump whisperer who is reportedly destroying the White House coronavirus task force with fringe theories and constant attacks on his colleagues, has pushed misinformation during every single appearance he’s made on Fox News since his first appearance in late April.
Atlas first got the attention of President Donald Trump by regularly appearing on the network. He is a radiologist and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank based at Stanford University. He is not an expert in virology or infectious disease. But his on-air flattery and downplaying of the severity of the coronavirus courted the favor of Trump, who brought him to the White House in August as an “adviser” on the coronavirus.
Atlas has pushed misinformation on a variety of issues related to the coronavirus, including promoting the reckless theory of “herd immunity”; spuriously attacking mask-wearing, testing, and contact tracing; downplaying the risk of the coronavirus; attacking anyone raising questions about political influence in the vaccine development process; and promoting so-called “T-cell immunity” to incorrectly suggest widespread population immunity to COVID-19 may already exist among people who have not contracted the virus. Here’s why he’s wrong on all these issues.
Scott Atlas pushed the concept of herd immunity on his very first appearance on Fox News in April and has not relented since. Multiple news reports have stated he is advising the president to adopt this policy.
Herd immunity is the concept that through mass vaccination, a population can become inoculated against a disease. But during the COVID-19 crisis, Atlas and others have perverted the concept to suggest policymakers let the virus run its course uninterrupted to achieve this outcome through natural infection. Little is known about long-term immunity to COVID-19, and there have been cases of repeated infections in one individual.
As the World Health Organization explains, “Attempts to reach ‘herd immunity’ through exposing people to a virus are scientifically problematic and unethical. Letting COVID-19 spread through populations, of any age or health status will lead to unnecessary infections, suffering and death.” An article in the scientific journal The Lancet describes the theory as a “dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence”
Atlas frequently couches his rhetoric about herd immunity in language that obscures the brutal reality of what this policy would bring about. His advocacy of herd immunity usually revolves around some variation of calling for total reopening of the economy without mitigation while isolating vulnerable populations. In his earlier appearances in April and May, he explicitly calls for adopting a policy of herd immunity. Over time, as scrutiny of his fringe theories increased, he continued to call for the same policy but ditched the term itself. For example, during his September 24 appearance on The Ingraham Angle, Atlas said, “We have to do very, very, diligent protection of the people who are vulnerable” and “we need to open.” This is a rosy way of describing herd immunity, which could lead to millions of excess deaths. Atlas has pushed this and related narratives many times:
- On the October 15 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Atlas touted the “Great Barrington Declaration” -- a pro-herd-immunity online document rejected by public health experts -- and said, “Mask mandates don’t work.”
- On the September 28 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Atlas attacked Fauci, gave a false impression that there is a lack of consensus among scientists regarding both the efficacy of mask-wearing and so-called “herd immunity,” dismissed the severity of the coronavirus by claiming “cases are not the most important metric,” and mocked and dismissed CDC guidelines for Halloween-related activities.
- On the September 2 edition of Fox News @ Night, Atlas spuriously denied reporting in The Washington Post that he advises the president to adopt a herd-immunity policy, then described herd immunity and advocated for its use.
- On the September 1 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Atlas called it an “overt lie” to suggest he advises the president to adopt herd immunity, and said “that is not a strategy in any way, shape, or form,” even though he’s repeatedly advocated the policy on Fox.
- On the August 13 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas trumpeted herd immunity as a response to the COVID-19 crisis by suggesting the mitigation should involve only “protecting the high-risk people, meaning mainly the elderly but also others with comorbidities.” Atlas downplayed the risk of COVID-19 to young people, stating that “young people are not at risk for a serious disease from this.”
- On the July 7 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Atlas blamed “confusion” for why herd immunity has not been tried as a mitigation strategy to control the spread of COVID-19; claimed that because of T-cells, “there are other ways to be immune” outside of catching the virus; and baselessly suggested that New York “will become the safest place because it may already have herd immunity.” He also claimed that the fact that cases are rising in the U.S. “correlates more to protest marches than to any reopening” without citing evidence.
- On the July 6 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas advocated for herd immunity, asserting, “When you have a lot of low-risk people get the infection, that’s how you generate population immunity.”
- On the June 29 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Atlas pushed herd immunity, saying, “We like the fact that there’s a lot of cases in low-risk populations because that is exactly how we're going to get herd immunity.”
- On the April 29 edition of Fox News @ Night, Atlas pushed herd immunity, claiming that “the key to any of these policies is to target who really is vulnerable” and also suggesting “there really is no scientific evidence to call for any kind of social distancing” among young adults and children.
- On the April 27 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Atlas promoted herd immunity, saying, “We have a chance to have people develop their own antibodies and eventually have enough people have these antibodies to block this sort of network of progression.” Atlas then described lockdowns as “counterproductive” and “harmful” and suggested young, healthy people are “a vehicle to keep the transmission going to other lower risk groups and have population immunity develop.”
- On the April 26 edition of The Next Revolution with Steve Hilton, Atlas argued “total population isolation” is “preventing natural immunity from developing” and claimed schools and business should open because “young people, under 18, have virtually no risk of serious illness or death.”
Masks work to help slow the spread of COVID-19. But Atlas has attacked the efficacy of masks on Fox News and Twitter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has even criticized a tweet from Atlas in which he took a statistic from a CDC study out of context to claim masks do not work. Twitter removed the tweet for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.
- On the October 19 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Atlas lied about his tweet that said masks don’t work and tried to reframe it.
- On the August 11 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Atlas falsely claimed that “much of the stuff on masks really is not good science at all” and mischaracterized the World Health Organization’s guidance on mask wearing.
Risk to children
Atlas has repeatedly suggested that COVID-19 is not a risk to children. The evidence does not bear this out. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “children can be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, can get sick from COVID-19, and can spread the virus that causes COVID-19 to others.” While many children are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms once infected, some cases have still led to hospitalization and death.
In some cases, children who have contracted COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus have become sick with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a condition in which critical organs in the body become inflamed. This condition can lead to serious health complications and even death.
- On the July 15 edition of America’s Newsroom, Atlas inaccurately compared COVID-19 to the seasonal flu and claimed “it would be irrational” for children to practice mask wearing and social distancing in schools based on his inaccurate premise that “it doesn’t matter if children get the disease” because “they don’t get sick from this.” He continued his argument by claiming that “zero kids have died from COVID-19,” which is false.
- On the June 8 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas downplayed the risk of COVID-19 in young students, asserting that “the only thing that matters are the cases that are serious that require hospitalizations or death.”
- On the May 23 edition of Fox Report with Jon Scott, Atlas said, “There’s no science whatsoever to keep K through 12 schools closed nor to have masks or social distancing on children nor to keep summer programs closed.”
- On the May 9 edition of Fox Report with Jon Scott, Atlas claimed “influenza has a much higher risk for young children than COVID-19 does” and argued that “younger, healthier people are the vehicle for developing population-based immunity.”
- On the May 4 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas inaccurately suggested that “the only curves that count are the deaths per day and the hospitalizations per day” and that “the fear is the problem,” not the virus. Atlas also misleadingly argued “there is no evidence to think that people in schools, K-12, have to be six feet apart. That’s just not correct.”
Risk to young adults
Atlas has repeatedly downplayed the risk of COVID-19 to young adults. His commentary ignores the fact that young people can indeed die after contracting the coronavirus, the long-term risks of contracting the disease, as well as the fact that increased cases among young people lead to spread among more vulnerable populations.
- On the September 16 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Atlas played the victim after YouTube removed a video in which he “falsely stat[e[d] that a certain age group cannot transmit the virus.” Atlas claimed censorship, falsely saying the U.S. is “teetering on the edge of what is done in Third World countries” and comparing his critics to flat earth conspiracy theorists.
- On the August 10 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas asserted that college athletes should continue playing sports because, as athletes, they “couldn’t get a better and safer environment,” ignoring reports of a rare heart condition arising among players infected with the virus. Atlas then dismissed the seriousness of COVID-19, saying that “young people that age without a comorbidity have virtually zero risk from this” and that “the risk for people that age is less than seasonal influenza.”
- On the August 3 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas downplayed the risk of college students contracting COVID-19, saying that “there is no problem for college students” and that “there should never be and there is no goal to stop college students from getting an infection.” Atlas added that it is “irrational” for an asymptomatic student to quarantine after getting tested for COVID-19 and advocated against surveillance testing, a mitigation strategy that tests certain portions of the population to make deductive inferences about community spread in order to better understand the spread of the pandemic.
- On the July 27 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas falsely claimed that “younger people … are not going to have a serious problem” if they are infected with COVID-19.
- On the July 13 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas baselessly asserted that teachers “have almost zero risk” of contracting COVID-19.
- On the June 22 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas downplayed the risk of COVID-19 to young people by baselessly theorizing that high rates of hospitalization are the result of manipulated data.
- On the May 25 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas downplayed the risk of COVID-19 by falsely claiming “the fatality rate is actually extremely low compared to what was originally said,” then claimed that “every month of the lockdown is almost the same as the total amount of lives lost from the pandemic itself” without citing any comprehensible evidence.
- On the May 18 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas baselessly claimed that flattened curves have “nothing to do with the number of cases” and pushed the false notion that “almost 99% of people have no serious problem.”
- On the May 16 edition of Watters’ World, Atlas incorrectly argued, “For people under 60, the fatality rate is less than or equal to the common flu.”
- On the May 11 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas attacked lockdown measures, saying that “the cure is bigger than the disease at this point” and that “the curves have been flattened,” which at the time was not true.
- On the May 2 edition of Fox Report with Jon Scott, Atlas claimed “most people deal with this very easily and particularly young people, healthier people, specifically” so “there’s no real evidence to keep people confined inside their homes.”
- On the April 24 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas wrongly suggested young and healthy people have “essentially zero risk of dying” and pushed herd immunity.
Politicization of a vaccine
Atlas has attacked people raising concerns about whether political pressure has compromised the integrity of the vaccine development process. In one example, he said such concerns “make people afraid of this vaccine when those people that are making others afraid are literally killing people.” These claims are both incorrect and politically motivated. In fact, concerns about the vaccine development process under Trump are widespread and bipartisan. Increased vaccine skepticism among the public is the result of Trump’s unrelenting attacks on apolitical regulatory bodies -- such as the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the CDC -- not of those who have pointed out that this is happening.
- On the September 17 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas falsely claimed that the widespread bipartisan concern that political pressure may be compromising the integrity of the vaccine development process “make[s] people afraid of this vaccine when those people that are making others afraid are literally killing people.” He also contradicted Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield regarding the vaccine development and distribution timeline.
- On the September 16 edition of Fox News @ Night, Atlas claimed “you cannot be worried about the vaccine” development and critics who raise concern about the politicization of the vaccine “are doing people a gross disservice” and are “literally killing people.”
- On the September 7 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas erroneously suggested that concern about political pressure on the vaccine development process meant that critics regarded rapid vaccine development as “bad news.” He also incorrectly attributed concern about the politicization of a potential vaccine as an effort to “instill more fear into Americans.”
As per The Washington Post, “no credible scientific study has proved” that memory T-cells protect against the coronavirus, a theory Atlas has repeatedly touted on Fox News. T-cells are a type of white blood cell that remains in the immune system after contracting a virus to help fight future infections. While scientists have considered whether they can help fight the novel coronavirus, they are still “uncertain” about the answer.
- On the September 24 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Atlas promoted “T-cell immunity,” downplayed the risks of COVID-19 to young people by ignoring potential long-term effects from contracting the virus, and pushed so-called “herd immunity.”
- On the July 23 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Atlas pushed T-cell immunity to claim widespread population immunity to COVID-19 may already exist. Atlas also mischaracterized the state of the pandemic as “not out of control” and downplayed the severity of COVID-19 in children, saying, “Children are not at risk at all.”
Atlas repeats pro-Trump talking points on a regular basis, echoing the constant stream of right-wing propagandists who populate the Fox News lineup.
- On the October 13 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Atlas praised Trump’s recovery from the coronavirus as a “10” when asked to give a rating from 1 to 10. ” He also downplayed the virus by claiming that “the overwhelming majority of people do well” with COVID-19, and he attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, going so far as to claim, “some people say” lockdowns are a “crime against humanity. These people should be accountable to what they said.”
- On the October 6 edition of The Ingraham Angle, a few days after Trump announced he had tested positive for COVID-19, Atlas falsely claimed that it is “a complete fallacy that President Trump is not following the science” and that “he’s following all the recommended guidelines for someone who is sick. When he’s around people, people enter his area, he has a mask, everyone else has a mask on.” He also defended Trump’s social media posts incorrectly comparing COVID-19 to the flu.
- On the September 25 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Atlas falsely claimed the Trump administration promotes mask-wearing and defended Trump’s decision to hold rallies during a pandemic, saying concerns are “scientifically irrational.”
- On the September 14 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Atlas defended Trump for holding crowded indoor rallies during a global pandemic, falsely claiming the campaign “did everything they could” to protect the attendees. He also pushed so-called “herd immunity” couching it in language claiming the Trump administration is using “common sense” to fight COVID-19.
- On the July 25 edition of Watters’ World, Atlas praised Trump’s disastrous coronavirus briefings, saying, “I think that the president’s briefings that were done this week were excellent and I think it’s obvious to everyone that there’s a focus on the data.”
Atlas has attacked contact tracing as an effective tool in eliminating the coronavirus. As the National Institute of Health explains, “COVID-19 cases often arise in clusters.” Understanding the location of clusters and who infected individuals have been in contact with makes tracking community spread of the virus more accessible for health care professionals. According to the World Health Organization, contact tracing is an “essential public health tool for controlling infectious disease outbreaks.”
- On the May 7 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Atlas advocated against contact tracing, saying its use was “illogical” at that phase of the pandemic and that “there is no reason to have contact tracing as a predicate for reopening” despite the loss of more than 70,000 lives at that point. Atlas also decried “an obsession now about testing, testing, testing” and advocated against widespread testing access.
Atlas blamed rising coronavirus cases in southern and states on immigration. This is a false narrative -- Trump’s draconian policy of continued deportations during a pandemic is actually spreading the disease in Central and South America.
- On the July 11 edition of Fox Report with Jon Scott, Atlas blamed rising coronavirus cases on immigration, saying without citing evidence that “the timeline” of surges in border states “correlates much more to the Mexico timeline of increasing cases than anything else.”