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Trump saw Dr. Scott Atlas on FOX News and decided to bring him onto the administration’s coronavirus task force. Since Atlas’s arrival, the task force has been riven with dissent. Drs. Birk and Fauci have fallen out of favor. Atlas has been accused of favoring “herd immunity,” which he denies. But he is close to Trump, and Trump listens to his advice.
As summer faded into autumn and the novel coronavirus continued to ravage the nation unabated, Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist whose commentary on Fox News led President Trump to recruit him to the White House, consolidated his power over the government’s pandemic response.
Atlas shot down attempts to expand testing. He openly feuded with other doctors on the coronavirus task force and succeeded in largely sidelining them. He advanced fringe theories, such as that social distancing and mask-wearing were meaningless and would not have changed the course of the virus in several hard-hit areas. And he advocated allowing infections to spread naturally among most of the population while protecting the most vulnerable and those in nursing homes until the United States reaches herd immunity, which experts say would cause excess deaths, according to three current and former senior administration officials.
Atlas also cultivated Trump’s affection with his public assertions that the pandemic is nearly over, despite death and infection counts showing otherwise, and his willingness to tell the public that a vaccine could be developed before the Nov. 3 election, despite clear indications of a slower timetable.
Atlas’s ascendancy was apparent during a recent Oval Office meeting. After Trump left the room, Atlas startled other aides by walking behind the Resolute Desk and occupying the president’s personal space to keep the meeting going, according to one senior administration official. Atlas called this account “false and laughable.”
Discord on the coronavirus task force has worsened since the arrival in late summer of Atlas, whom colleagues said they regard as ill-informed, manipulative and at times dishonest. As the White House coronavirus response coordinator, Deborah Birx is tasked with collecting and analyzing infection data and compiling charts detailing upticks and other trends. But Atlas routinely has challenged Birx’s analysis and those of other doctors, including Anthony S. Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, with what the other doctors considered junk science, according to three senior administration officials.
Birx recently confronted the office of Vice President Pence, who chairs the task force, about the acrimony, according to two people familiar with the meeting. Birx, whose profile and influence has eroded considerably since Atlas’s arrival, told Pence’s office that she does not trust Atlas, does not believe he is giving Trump sound advice and wants him removed from the task force, the two people said.
In one recent encounter, Pence did not take sides between Atlas and Birx, but rather told them to bring data bolstering their perspectives to the task force and to work out their disagreements themselves, according to two senior administration officials.
The result has been a U.S. response increasingly plagued by distrust, infighting and lethargy, just as experts predict coronavirus cases could surge this winter and deaths could reach 400,000 by year’s end.
This assessment is based on interviews with 41 administration officials, advisers to the president, public health leaders and other people with knowledge of internal government deliberations, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide candid assessments or confidential information.
Atlas defended his views and conduct in a series of statements sent through a spokesperson and condemned The Washington Post’s reporting as “another story filled with overt lies and distortions to undermine the President and the expert advice he is being given.”
Atlas said he has always stressed “all appropriate mitigation measures to save lives,” and he responded to accounts of dissent on the task force by saying, “Any policy discussion where data isn’t being challenged isn’t a policy discussion.”
On the issue of herd immunity, Atlas said, “We emphatically deny that the White House, the President, the Administration, or anyone advising the President has pursued or advocated for a wide-open strategy of achieving herd immunity by letting the infection proceed through the community.”
The doctor’s denial conflicts with his previous public and private statements, including his recent endorsement of the “Great Barrington Declaration,” which effectively promotes a herd immunity strategy.
On Saturday, Atlas wrote on Twitter that masks do not work, prompting the social media site to remove the tweet for violating its safety rules for spreading misinformation. Several medical and public health experts flagged the tweet as dangerous misinformation coming from a primary adviser to the president.
“Masks work? NO,” Atlas wrote in the tweet, followed by other misrepresentations about the science behind masks. He linked to an article from the American Institute for Economic Research — a libertarian think tank behind the Barrington effort — that argued against masks and dismissed the threat of the virus as overblown.
Trump and many of his advisers have come to believe that the key to a revived economy and a return to normality is a vaccine.
“They’ve given up on everything else,” said a senior administration official involved in the pandemic response. “It’s too hard of a slog.”
Infectious-disease and other public health experts said the friction inside the White House has impaired the government’s response.
“It seems to me this is policy-based evidence-making rather than evidence-based policymaking,” said Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “In other words, if your goal is to do nothing, then you create a situation in which it looks okay to do nothing [and] you find some experts to make it complicated.”
These days, the task force is dormant relative to its robust activity earlier in the pandemic. Fauci, Birx, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and other members have confided in others that they are dispirited.
Birx and Fauci have advocated dramatically increasing the nation’s testing capacity, especially as experts anticipate a devastating increase in cases this winter. They have urged the government to use unspent money Congress allocated for testing — which amounts to $9 billion, according to a Democratic Senate appropriations aide — so that anyone who needs to can get a test with results returned quickly.
But Atlas, who is opposed to surveillance testing, has repeatedly quashed these proposals. He has argued that young and healthy people do not need to get tested and that testing resources should be allocated to nursing homes and other vulnerable places, such as prisons and meatpacking plants.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews defended Trump and the administration’s management of the crisis.
“President Trump has always listened to the advice of his top public health experts, who have diverse areas of expertise,” Matthews said in a statement. “The President always puts the well-being of the American people first as evidenced by the many bold, data-driven decisions he has made to save millions of lives. Because of his strong leadership, our country can safely reopen with adequate PPE, treatments, and vaccines developed in record time.”
Yet 10 months into a public health crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 219,000 people in the United States — a far higher death toll than any other nation has reported — a consensus has formed within the administration that some measures to mitigate the spread of the virus may not be worth the trouble.
The president gave voice to this mind-set during an NBC News town hall Thursday night, when he declined to answer whether he supported herd immunity. “The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself,” Trump told host Savannah Guthrie.
But medical experts disagreed, saying it is dangerous for government leaders to advocate herd immunity or oppose interventions.
“We’d be foolish to reenter a situation where we know what to do and we’re not doing it,” said Rochelle Walensky, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “This thing can take off. All you need to do is look at what’s happened at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue over the last two weeks to see that this thing is way faster than we’re giving it credit for.”
After Trump came home from the hospital this month, he all but promised Americans that they could soon be cured from the coronavirus just as he claimed to have been. In a video taped at the White House on Oct. 5, he vowed, “The vaccines are coming momentarily.”
Then, at a rally last Tuesday night in Johnstown, Pa., Trump told supporters, “The vaccines are coming soon, the therapeutics and, frankly, the cure. All I know is I took something, whatever the hell it was. I felt good very quickly . . . I felt like Superman.”
Trump’s miraculous timeline has run headlong into reality, however. On the same day that he declared “the cure” was near, Johnson & Johnson became the second pharmaceutical giant, after AstraZeneca, to halt its vaccine trial. A third trial, a government-run test of a monoclonal antibody manufactured by Eli Lilly & Co., was also paused. Each move was prompted by safety concerns.
And on Friday, Pfizer said it will not be able to seek an emergency use authorization from the FDA until the third week of November, at the earliest, seemingly making a vaccine before Election Day all but impossible.
Trump’s notion of a vaccine as a cure-all for the pandemic is similarly miraculous, according to medical experts.
“The vaccines, although they’re wonderful, are not going to make the virus magically disappear,” said Tom Frieden, a former CDC director who is president of Resolve to Save Lives. “There’s no fairy-tale ending to this pandemic. We’re going to be dealing with it at least through 2021, and it’s likely to have implications for how we do everything from work to school, even with vaccines.”
Frieden added: “Remember, we have vaccines against the flu, and we still have flu.”
The article goes on to describe the pressure that Trump and his chief of staff Mark Meadows are putting on the CDC, the FDA, and the NIH to accelerate the approval of a vaccine before November 3, election day. Pence has been assigned the job of smooth-talking the governors and assuring them that a vaccination will soon be available. Meanwhile, the politicization of the vaccine approval process has caused a decline in the proportion of the public that is willing to take a new vaccine if it becomes available.
Trump and his close advisor Scott Atlas have pointed to the Great Barrington Declaration as evidence for their views; it was allegedly signed by 15,000 scientists. However, the Daily Beast was able to scrutinize some of the signers, and among them were obviously fake names.
The White House has reportedly embraced a declaration by a group of scientists arguing for a “herd immunity” strategy to deal with America’s coronavirus pandemic—days after the validity of the declaration came under question due to a number of apparently fake names among its expert signatories, including “Dr. Johnny Bananas.” According to The New York Times, on a call convened Monday by the White House, two anonymous administration officials cited the petition, titled The Great Barrington Declaration, which argues that COVID-19 should be allowed to spread through the population. The declaration’s website claims the petition has been signed by more than 15,000 scientists, but, last week, Sky News found dozens of fake names on the list of medical signatories, including Dr. I.P. Freely, Dr. Person Fakename, and Dr. Johnny Bananas.