Stanford doctors denounce Trump appointee Dr. Scott Atlas
In the tight-knit world of academic medicine, scientists pride themselves on presenting a united and unflappable face to those outside their ranks.
But this week, in a scathing letter, dozens of Stanford University Medical School’s top faculty denounced former colleague Dr. Scott Atlas for promoting what they called “falsehoods and misrepresentations of science.”
Atlas, a diagnostic radiologist and senior fellow at the conservative think tank Hoover Institution, was recently appointed by President Donald Trump to the White House coronavirus task force.
As an adviser counselor to the president about the virus, he has made controversial statements about controlling the pandemic, which has killed more than 178,000 Americans, through “natural immunity.” He also has urged the reopening of schools and businesses.
“Many of his opinions and statements run counter to established science and, by doing so, undermine public-health authorities and the credible science that guides effective public health policy,” according to the letter, signed by Dr. Philip A. Pizzo, former dean of Stanford School of Medicine; Dr. Upi Singh, chief of Stanford’s Division of Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Bonnie Maldonado, professor of epidemiology and population health, and 105 others.
Among the letter’s signatories are many national experts in the university’s departments of infectious disease, epidemiology and microbiology, including Dr. David Relman, who pioneers methods for discovering new human pathogens, and Dr. Lucy S. Tompkins, who leads Stanford’s Department of Infection Prevention and Control.
“Our goal with this letter was to provide a science-evidence based commentary on some core issues that Scott Atlas has addressed and to provide context and clarity,’ said Pizzo, who now leads The Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute.
“We are motivated by our responsibility to do all we can to protect and promote public health and wellbeing,” he said.
Atlas did not respond to requests for an interview.
As a diagnostic radiologist, he specializes in interpreting images taken by X-ray, MRIs and CT scans. He served as a professor and chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center from 1998 to 2012.
Atlas, 65, is also the editor of the leading textbook in the field, Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain and Spine. He received a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Illinois in Urbana‐Champaign and a medical degree from the University of Chicago School of Medicine.
At the Hoover Institution, he has written about free-market care and economic policy. His papers focus on the impact of government and the private sector on access, quality and pricing in health care. Atlas served as a health care adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign for president.
Trump announced the Atlas appointment at a White House briefing in mid-August, saying he has “many good ideas” and will take administration efforts to combat the pandemic to “a new level.”
On Friday, Atlas said on Twitter: “I was asked by the President of the United States to help formulate healthcare policy during the biggest healthcare crisis in a century. My extensive background in both medical science and healthcare policy provides a unique and urgently needed perspective on this matter.”
Defending his lack of expertise in infectious disease, “I’m not hired to be an epidemiologist,” Atlas told CNN. “I am someone who’s worked in health care policy for about 15 plus years, and before that, I had a 25-year career … in very high-level medical science and in integrating a lot of complicated stuff — specialty information from high-level subspecialists in infectious disease, pediatrics, oncology, cardiovascular medicine.”
On the conservative “Steve Deace Show” last April, Atlas spoke in favor of allowing the virus to infect younger and healthier Americans, saying their immunity would protect others.
“We can allow a lot of people to get infected,” he said. “Those who are not at risk to die or have a serious hospital-requiring illness, we should be fine with letting them get infected, generating immunity on their own, and the more immunity in the community, the better we can eradicate the threat of the virus.”
He has urged the lifting of business restrictions, telling Fox News on Aug. 24 that “American lives are being destroyed. …. The lockdown must end.”
Atlas also said that schools should open as quickly as possible.
“The harms of not opening schools are really tremendous and all that goes with the known evidence that children really have very, very low risk from this illness,” Atlas said at a press conference with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Aug. 31.
The Stanford faculty challenge his assertions, saying the preponderance of data shows that that the safest path to herd immunity is through deployment of safe vaccines, not infection; crowded indoor spaces can significantly boost the risk of viral spread; and that illness in children, while uncommon, can lead to serious short-term and long-term consequences.
“Failure to follow the science — or deliberately misrepresenting the science – will lead to immense avoidable harm,” the letter warns.