To his supporters, Scott Atlas is the person who injected a welcome dose of frequent sense into the Trump administration’s coronavirus response on the most crucial level of the pandemic final yr. To his critics, he is the person whose irresponsible recommendation led to 1000’s of deaths. Right now, nonetheless, he is a person fumbling in his pocket for the masks he has simply been advised to put on by the stern-faced server at considered one of Washington DC’s most respectable eating places.
Atlas is ready for me outdoors 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’re sitting outdoors at a desk on bustling 14th Street — an ideal spot to see and be seen. But Atlas is a Californian with little style for out of doors eating on a breezy February day, and little endurance for my flimsy purpose for doing so: examine after examine has proven the danger of Covid-19 transmission is considerably greater in indoor areas akin to eating places and bars. Atlas dismisses my considerations 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.”
The combative radiologist burst into public life final August as Donald Trump’s coronavirus adviser. Appointed to the White House’s Covid-19 job drive, he lobbied energetically in opposition to all the things its members had been advocating — widespread testing, face masks and, most significantly, lockdown — earlier than leaving authorities in December after the previous president’s election defeat.
Atlas, nonetheless, stays an influential voice. Joe Biden could have changed Trump as president however America is nonetheless a rustic divided between lockdown evangelists and lockdown sceptics — with Atlas one of the outstanding members of the latter group.
Just days after our assembly, Texas and Mississippi declared a whole finish to their Covid restrictions, together with masks mandates. Biden responded by condemning what he known as “Neanderthal thinking”. But Atlas is satisfied it is those that hearken to the scientific consensus who usually are not pondering clearly sufficient.
Back in August, Trump launched Atlas to the US public as “a very famous man who is also highly respected”.
In actuality, he was well-known primarily to common viewers of Fox News, the place he incessantly appeared as a supporter of Trump’s pandemic technique. In doing so, he grew to become considered one of a small however vociferous group of lecturers pushing for an finish to virtually all Covid-imposed social restrictions. While he didn’t have a background in infectious ailments, Atlas was in a position to lend some mental heft to Trump’s claims that the pandemic was overplayed.
It is straightforward to know what Trump noticed in his closest Covid adviser. As properly as an impressive-sounding checklist of credentials, together with a fellowship on the rightwing Hoover Institution think-tank, Atlas appeared good on tv, along with his chiselled cheekbones and all-year-round tan. He additionally exhibits a Trumpian confidence in his personal opinions and a willingness to pour scorn on those that disagree.
“They didn’t know the data,” he says of his fellow job drive members — a few of the most revered public scientists on the earth. “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 intentionally attempting to drive the Covid an infection price up in an try to succeed in “herd immunity” — the purpose the place so many individuals have antibodies that the virus can now not unfold 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 final September: “Everything [Atlas] says is false.”
The criticisms infuriate Atlas. He insists he didn’t wish to “open the barn door” to coronavirus, and that his argument was far easier: lockdowns trigger extra hurt than they do good, and so they need to by no means be used to curb the illness. We have solely simply sat down at our street-side desk, however Atlas needs to get this clear immediately.
“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 research exhibiting that lockdowns have slowed the unfold of the illness, however Atlas is not fascinated with them. He says the clearest proof comes from a paper published in January by the European Journal of Clinical Investigation, which used case research from 10 nations to measure the effectiveness of a spread of behavioural restrictions in lowering the an infection price through the first wave of instances final yr. The researchers concluded that much less restrictive measures akin to social distancing pointers, discouraging journey and bans on massive gatherings had a larger impact on case numbers than stay-at-home orders and enterprise 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 explanations behind this conclusion was that Sweden and South Korea each suffered lower than is perhaps anticipated, given their much less restrictive insurance policies. But each are outliers in numerous methods. South Korea had a state-of-the-art mass test-and-trace system not replicated in different nations; and whereas Sweden has fared higher than many European nations, it has completed noticeably much less properly than its closest neighbours with which it shares many demographic similarities.
So what does Atlas make of Sweden’s comparatively poor Covid efficiency as in contrast with Denmark, Finland and Norway particularly?
“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 extra deaths, I say, considerably extra deaths, than different nations —
“Than who? Than France? Than Belgium? Than Spain? No.”
No, I reply, however they’re a way more dispersed inhabitants. “No,” he says. “You’re making up a reason to explain it. You’re making up a reason.”
Would he not less than say that Sweden largely adopted his blueprint, and so its success or failure displays on whether or not he is proper? “I don’t know. I haven’t made an effort to look in detail at everything that Sweden did.”
I’m shocked by Atlas’s lack of familiarity with the Swedish case, not least as a result of it had been a trigger célèbre amongst lockdown sceptics — even when it grew to become much less so when the nation changed course earlier this yr and started to impose stricter measures to curb one other surge in instances.
But I’m additionally hungry, and fortunately the server is right here each to take our order and alter the subject of dialog.
Atlas orders the French onion soup — a warming dish for a Californian feeling the chilly — adopted by the nice and cozy shrimp salad and a glass of Sancerre. I go for the restaurant’s well-known steak tartare, plus the identical primary course and drink as my visitor. There are solely so many occasions I wish to disagree with him.
Besides, there are occasions when Atlas has superior unpopular views that later proved to be justified. He was proper, for instance, that colleges usually are not important accelerators of the illness, and his requires them to reopen are actually being echoed by the Biden administration and by instructing unions. And he could have been appropriate that we have been nearer to herd immunity than we beforehand thought, particularly in locations which were hit hardest by the illness.
Our starters arrive, and Atlas digs hungrily beneath the grilled cheese crust of his French onion soup, whereas I savour the tender however spicy punch of the steak tartare. They usually are not adventurous decisions, however Le Diplomate is not a spot to come back for culinary journey: it is the place to come back for the reassuring crunch of freshly baked items of baguette slathered with salted butter.
Soothed by the arrival of the meals, I attempt one other doubtlessly thorny subject of dialog. What precisely occurred when Atlas and different Trump advisers efficiently argued for the CDC to vary its steering on coronavirus testing in order that it now not really useful testing folks with none signs? The coverage prompted ructions inside the White House job drive, and the rules have been quickly reversed after widespread public criticism that slicing checks would cover the total extent of the pandemic.
Atlas’s argument is that asymptomatic instances account for less than a tiny minority of transmissions. “It’s very small and in some cases almost zero,” he says.
Many infectious ailments consultants disagree. CDC scientists estimated in January that not less than 50 per cent of instances are handed on by folks not exhibiting any signs. A overview of constructive check outcomes around the globe undertaken by researchers in Australia got here up with a determine of 17 per cent.
As with most of Atlas’s arguments, there are research that again up his claims, even when they’re within the minority. One of the key items of proof comes from researchers on the University of Florida, who discovered a a lot decrease price of transmission from asymptomatic instances inside households, of simply 0.7 per cent.
Should we not check asymptomatic folks anyway? Surely it is higher to know the place the illness 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 sure, masks. It has taken over an hour, and our salads — crisp and inexperienced, and accompanied by 4 shrimp sitting fatly in a pool of beurre blanc — are practically devoured, however right here we’re at what I knew was prone to be one of the delicate matters of our dialog.
Masks, Atlas argues, must be worn solely the place social distancing can’t be maintained. As proof, he factors to a managed trial in Denmark the place researchers requested some contributors to put on masks outdoors the house and others to not, after which tracked the incidence of Covid-19 in each teams. They discovered negligible distinction within the variety of instances between the teams, and concluded that masks worn outdoors the house didn’t lower an infection charges by 50 per cent.
The trial has been used by anti-lockdown campaigners to argue that masks don’t work, however its authors made no such declare — not least as a result of they measured solely whether or not masks lower an infection charges for the wearers and never whether or not 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 actually cleared and the breeze is choosing up. I placed on my coat and scarf and lift the topic of a piece he wrote in The Hill, a Washington-focused political newspaper.
In it, Atlas and his co-authors tried to calculate the variety of years of life misplaced because of lockdown measures. Adding collectively the impact of missed chemotherapy appointments, cancelled most cancers screening appointments, suspected strokes that have been by no means reported and a string of different knock-on results, they concluded that 200,000 years of life had been misplaced for each month of shutdown.
The piece appeared to articulate higher than any why Atlas is so adamantly against strict lockdown measures. But my query is: if his case is that lockdowns trigger extra hurt than good, why did he not calculate the variety of years of life they saved? Why add up the harms, however not even try to enumerate the advantages?
“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 information exhibiting that locking down solely the notably susceptible — maybe the over-70s and people with underlying situations — whereas permitting others to combine freely, would have a web helpful impression? After all, this is what was advocated by the Great Barrington Declaration, the anti-lockdown credo that Atlas promoted whereas in authorities.
“No, I don’t think anybody should be made to be cautious,” he says.
This to me is his most stunning reply. He has insisted that he is merely being guided by the scientific information. But if the info confirmed the alternative? His recommendation to the president would have been the identical.
“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 a lot has occurred since Atlas left authorities. What does he make of it now? Does he remorse attaching himself so carefully to the previous president? What does he assume these 4 months did to his scientific fame and profession? “Listen, President Trump, you can dislike him, hate him, whatever you want to think about him, but he’s a leader.”
Did you want him? “Yes.”
And what, I ask, did you make of the election? “I thought he lost.”
Would you’re taking the job once more? I settle the invoice with our hovering server. We have now been at our desk for 3 hours and it is previous time to go away.
“I’m not sure,” Atlas says, standing up and eradicating his masks as soon as extra 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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