Embraced by White House but few else, Stanford affiliates at focus of COVID-19 controversies

Oct. 25, 2020, 10:12 p.m.

As the United States braces for a third wave of COVID-19 cases, two Stanford affiliates have become a focus of controversy, both nationally and in the Stanford sphere, for their contrarian views on the coronavirus pandemic. 

Medicine professor Jay Bhattacharya ’90 A.M. ’90 M.D. ’98 Ph.D. ’00 has been rebuked by medical professionals over his view that only the most vulnerable should be protected from the virus, which he claims should be left to spread naturally among less at-risk demographics in order to establish herd immunity among the U.S. population. The idea has gained traction in the White House, where Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Scott Atlas advises President Donald Trump. While Atlas has denied suggesting a herd immunity policy to the president, he has praised Bhattacharya’s ideas and has also previously supported the herd immunity strategy in an op-ed, Hoover Institution virtual policy briefings and testimony before the Senate.

Atlas, whose views on the virus have been widely disputed, argues that there is a “likelihood that only 25 or 20 percent of people need the infection,” and said that seeking and testing asymptomatic people amounted to “destroying the workforce,” The New York Times reported.

Even as the two become increasingly influential, the University has declined to take a stance on their views, instead advocating for the right of affiliates to express opposing views. Stanford University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote in a statement to The Daily that “members of our university community hold a diversity of views and have the ability to express those views” as well as “disagree with or challenge those views.” However, “the viewpoints they express are their own and do not necessarily represent, and are not endorsed by, the university.”

Yet those speaking out against Bhattacharya and Atlas’ views say they are doing so to fight misinformation that could have dangerous consequences. 

“The University has suggested that the issue at hand is simply a ‘difference of opinion,’ … or the academic freedom to express one’s personal views,” David Relman, a medicine, microbiology and immunology professor, wrote in an email to The Daily. “This is wrong; this is not the issue. This is not a difference of opinion about policy. It is a long series of flat-out lies about science.”

Bhattacharya was one of three authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, which advocates for a “focused protection” approach that “allow[s] those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk.” 

In practice, this materializes in opening schools, restaurants and workplaces for young Americans while protecting older and more vulnerable populations, a strategy which Bhattacharya insists will build herd immunity and create a safer environment for at-risk groups. Atlas, a key White House coronavirus advisor, has praised the declaration. 

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, has rejected the declaration as “total nonsense.” And on Oct. 14, 80 experts published the John Snow Memorandum, which has now been signed by over 5,300 scientists, researchers and medical professionals.

Referencing the justifications for a “herd immunity” approach detailed in the Great Barrington Declaration, the John Snow memo argues that allowing the virus to spread naturally through young people “risks significant morbidity and mortality across the whole population.” It also claims that there is “no evidence for lasting protective immunity” after COVID-19 infection, and that such a strategy as advocated by Bhattacharya and Atlas would lead to “recurrent epidemics.”

The memo instead emphasizes the need for “physical distancing, use of face coverings, hand and respiratory hygiene” and “avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces,” as well as “rapid testing, contact tracing and isolation.”

To minimize panic and the pressure for universities to close, Bhattacharya and declaration co-author Martin Kulldorff, a Harvard Medical School professor, also advocated for reducing asymptomatic testing for youth in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, expressing support for “strategic age-targeted viral testing.” 

“Underlying many of their statements is a profound ignorance about the size of the population at heightened risk for more severe disease,” Relman wrote in reference to the op-ed. “Maybe they try adding up all those with diabetesthose with obesity… African-Americans, Latinx… and then add on those older than 60 years old.”

Atlas has also contradicted other medical professionals by arguing that many people have “T-cell immunity” from former exposure to coronaviruses like the common cold. The theory is that these T-cells would protect them against COVID-19; however, Robert Redfield, Director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, recently testified before Congress that only 9% of Americans have natural antibodies against the virus.

In addition to his role as a professor of medicine, Bhattacharya is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and director of the Center on the Demography of Health and Aging, according to his Stanford profile, and a former research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Atlas is a former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford Medical Center. Stanford Medicine spokesperson Julie Greicius told The Daily that “Stanford Medicine supports the freedom of faculty to voice their position” but does not “endorse any ​individual views expressed by faculty.” She added that Bhattacharya and Atlas’ views “do not represent an institutional position by Stanford Medicine.”

Over 100 Stanford physicians and researchers condemned Atlas’ views in an open letter to Stanford University School of Medicine faculty. An attorney for Atlas threatened a defamation suit against the signatories. Atlas wrote to The Daily that he had “never advised the President to open schools or society in any fashion other than safely and in accordance with the science.”

“The environment created by the open letter falsely characterizing Scott Atlas’s positions, written by 100+ of my colleagues, has created a political litmus test for Stanford faculty making it very difficult to honestly discuss issues related to COVID-19 policy within the university,” Bhattacharya wrote to The Daily. 

Miranda, the University spokesperson, also said that Stanford “has adopted policies requiring face coverings, physical distancing, and other protocols in order to inhibit the spread of the virus.” These are preventative measures that Atlas and Bhattacharya have both generally criticized.

“Masks work? NO,” Atlas recently wrote in a tweet, which has since been taken down by Twitter for spreading misinformation. In the same tweet, he linked to an article published by the American Institute for Economic Research, the libertarian think tank that backed the Great Barrington Declaration. 

Embraced by White House but few else, Stanford affiliates at focus of COVID-19 controversies
JACKIE O’NEIL/The Stanford Daily

Atlas has also been censored by YouTube, which took down a Hoover Institution interview in which he cast doubt on social distancing measures and stated that children “do not even transmit the disease.” Earlier this month a sign outside Hoover Tower proclaimed “ATLAS LIES AMERICANS DIE” before being removed.

Despite wide criticism of Atlas and Bhattacharya’s claims, the White House has largely embraced the controversial positions on herd immunity.

When asked about his stance on the importance of masks in an NBC town hall, the president invoked Atlas: “If you look at Scott, Dr. Scott, he’s from — great guy — from Stanford, he will tell you,” Trump said. “He’s one of the experts of the world.”

Contact Jessica Zhu at jesszhu ‘at’ stanford.edu, Athena Xue at axue8 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Iyshwary Warren at iwarren ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jessica Zhu '24 is the executive editor for Vol. 264 and 265 and was formerly head copy editor and a desk editor for news. She studies international relations, human rights and French, and can probably be found at CoHo with a quad espresso.Athena Xue is a desk editor for the Business, Science and Technology desk in News. She is a sophomore from Fremont, CA interested in studying biology and art practice, and she enjoys watching cute otter videos. Contact her at axue 'at' stanforddaily.com.Iyshwary Warren is from Tallahassee, FL. She is the Stanford Medicine Beat Reporter and plans to pursue a career in medicine and research. Contact her at iwarren ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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