As the United States deals with both the continued spread of COVID-19 and a rise in monkeypox cases around the country, a House subcommittee report showed how “herd immunity” disinformation gained traction during Donald Trump’s presidential administration.
First released in June 2022, the report by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis focused on Dr. Scott Atlas’ practices while acting as a “special advisor” to Trump; according to the committee, new evidence showed that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner hired him in secret in July 2020 and then took steps to initially conceal his role.
“For instance, Dr. Atlas informed the Select Subcommittee in a transcribed interview that Mr. Kushner instructed him not to announce himself on conference calls and directed him to hide his White House identification card in his briefcase before first meeting with Dr. [Deborah] Birx,” the committee said in a statement, referring to the administration’s coronavirus coordinator.
According to the report, within a month of his hiring Atlas set out to push a “herd immunity” strategy to respond to the coronavirus, despite evidence that — contrary to disinformation campaigns stating otherwise — it had a devastating effect in Sweden.
In August 2020, Atlas invited a group that included Dr. Jay Bhattacharya and Dr. Martin Kulldorff, two of the men who would later release the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a text advocating for herd immunity response that has been described as “unscientific, unethical, and unfeasible,” and which also reportedly contained signatures of support from fake medical professionals with names like “Dr Johnny Bananas.”
The meeting prompted Birx to email Marc Short, the chief of staff for then-Vice President Mike Pence, and tell him, “I can’t be part of this.” She added:
… They are a fringe group without grounding in epidemics, or on the ground common sense experience. I am happy to go out of town or whatever gives the [White House] cover for [the meeting].
Despite misgivings by both Birx and Kushner, that meeting went on as scheduled. Atlas then moved to set up a separate meeting for Atlas, Bhattacharya, Kulldorff, and Dr. Sunetra Gupta with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on October 5 2020, the day after the “Declaration” document was released. At the time, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins called the meeting dangerous.
“It fits into the political views of certain parts of our confused political establishment,” Collins said. “I’m sure it will be an idea that someone can wrap themselves in as a justification for skipping wearing masks or social distancing and just doing whatever they damn well please.”
Collins left his position in December 2021 saying that the Trump administration pressured him to embrace debunked COVID-19 “cures” like hydroxychloroquine.
“I have done everything I can to stay out of any kind of political, partisan debates because it is really not a place where medical research belongs,” he told CNN at the time. “I was not going to compromise scientific principles to just hold onto the job.”
The committee said in a statement:
With Dr. Atlas’ influence fully entrenched, the Trump White House made little attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the fall and winter of 2020 and early 2021—even as outbreaks surged across the country. With Dr. Atlas providing a veneer of scientific backing to justify inaction, the Trump Administration instead focused on downplaying the threat of the virus leading up to the November presidential election and on advancing the Big Lie in the weeks that followed. Dr. Birx informed the Select Subcommittee that, in her view, more than 130,000 American lives could have been saved after the first wave of the pandemic if President Trump and his Administration had implemented “optimal mitigation across this country.”House Report Shows How ‘Herd Immunity’ Disinformation Influenced Trump’s COVID ResponseHouse Report Shows How ‘Herd Immu...
Their report can be read in full here.