A former COVID-19 adviser for former President Donald Trump, speaking Monday evening at the University of Texas, falsely told a small crowd that COVID-19 vaccines present serious safety concerns and advocated against inoculating children.
Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University, also implied that the high number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. were linked to “lockdowns” and other pandemic safety restrictions, and he said government data around COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths was exaggerated and flawed.
The Salem Center for Policy at UT’s McCombs School of Business hosted Atlas.
The presentation, titled “The SARS2 Pandemic: Will Truth Prevail?” was open to students, staff, faculty and the general public. About 20 people watched the talk in-person and a few dozen watched virtually.
Atlas, a radiologist, does not specialize in public health or infectious diseases. He has previously faced criticism from multiple medical experts, the Stanford Medical School faculty and the Stanford Faculty Senate, which passed a resolution stating Atlas is “promoting a view of COVID-19 that contradicts medical science.”
During the beginning of the pandemic, Atlas said that young people should contract the virus while older Americans isolated to generate more immunity within the population. However, on Monday, he denied advocating for COVID-19 to spread without mitigation strategies and said previous reporting by The Washington Post that he advocated for herd immunity was “a lie.”
“We can allow a lot of people to get infected,” Atlas said on a conservative talk show in April 2020. “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.”
More than 965,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, including nearly 6,000 people between ages 18-29 and 17,450 between ages 30 to 39, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He also encouraged Michigan residents in a November 2020 tweet to “rise up” against COVID-19 restrictions on schools and businesses from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, although he later tweeted that he was not advocating violence.
Carlos Carvalho, executive director of the Salem Center for Policy and a UT statistics professor, did not immediately respond to a question about why Atlas was invited to speak at UT, although he praised Atlas and his work during the presentation.
“Scott’s courage and perseverance to argue, provide alternative perspectives, question assumptions, seek better evidence, i.e., the basics of the scientific process, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, is to be commended,” Carvalho said.
A UT spokesperson responded to a request for comment by pointing to the school’s free speech policies, which state, in part, that freedom of speech is central to the mission of the university and UT will not discriminate on the basis of people’s viewpoints.
The policy also states that any university organization that presents a guest speaker on campus must make clear that the organization — not the university — invited the speaker and the views of the speaker do not necessarily represent the views of the university.
During his presentation, Atlas said COVID-19 vaccines have “serious safety concerns,” including myocarditis in young men, and don’t protect against infection as well as “natural immunity,” or the protection that the body creates after an infection.
The McLellan Lab at UT played a significant role in developing the research behind the COVID-19 vaccine, which has saved more than 240,000 lives and prevented nearly 1.2 million hospitalizations in the U.S., according to a model in a study published this year in the journal JAMA Network Open.
The CDC and other medical experts recommend the vaccine for everyone age 5 and older because the risks of COVID-19, including hospitalization and death, outweigh the potential risks of any rare adverse reactions.
A CDC study published in January found that, during the delta variant surge, people who were previously infected with COVID-19 had more protection than people who were vaccinated but had not been infected. However, the study doesn’t apply to the omicron variant, which has been the dominant variant in the U.S. since late last year, and it was conducted before booster shots were widely available to the public.
Atlas said the COVID-19 vaccine helps protect people who are at high risk for death and severe disease, but he advocated during the presentation against giving it to children. He said that healthy children have a low risk of serious illness, almost no risk of death from COVID-19 and rarely spread the virus to adults.
“There is a serious breakdown of medical ethics to anyone who recommends and administers vaccines to healthy children. … The kids who are healthy have no significant risk of the disease. You don’t inject experimental drugs,” Atlas said.
Children are less likely to develop severe illness compared with adults, but they still face some risk, according to the CDC, and vaccination is recommended for children age 5 and older.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, at least 944 children have died from COVID-19 from May 2020 to March 2022 in the U.S., which amounts to about 0.11% of all COVID-19 deaths. More than 40,700 children in 25 states and New York City have been hospitalized, or about 3.2% of all the people in those states and New York City hospitalized for COVID-19.
Atlas also criticized Dr. Deborah Birx, former White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, saying they encouraged COVID-19 restrictions, such as lockdowns and school and business closures.
“The result (of those policies) was about 900,000 plus Americans have died, at least have been deaths attributed to COVID-19, and millions of families and children were severely hurt, especially the working class and the poor,” Atlas said. “That’s what was implemented. They got what they want.”
Studies from the Global Policy Lab at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan have found that COVID-19 restrictions, such as lockdowns, have prevented — not caused — millions of COVID-19 cases and related deaths.
After accusing Fauci’s policies of contributing to high COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., Atlas then claimed that some COVID-19 data was inflated.
“There’s a gross exaggeration of hospitalizations and deaths for COVID in the United States,” Atlas said. “It doesn’t mean that people didn’t die. I’m not minimizing, but this is the perspective that was never given to the American public.”
Multiple hospital systems in a variety of states, including New York and Massachusetts, acknowledged that there were patients diagnosed with COVID-19 who came to the hospital for noncoronavirus reasons, especially during the omicron surge, and some adjusted their reported data to reflect the distinction.
Doctors and medical experts told the Poynter Institute that anyone who is hospitalized — whether the primary cause was COVID-19 or not — requires hospital resources and may limit the availability of beds or staffers for other patients. The incidental cases still pose a risk and do not mean that COVID-19 hospitalization data was inflated, Poynter reported.