Twitter removes false coronavirus tweet by Trump's favourite health adviser

Ed Pilkington in New York
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Carlos Barría/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Carlos Barría/Reuters

Twitter has removed a tweet by Scott Atlas, a controversial scientist who has Donald Trump’s ear, in which he wrongly stated that masks fail to protect against coronavirus.

Related: Global report: Fauci 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got Covid; Biden warns virus worsening

The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that Atlas has scattered discord inside the White House, so infuriating Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator, that she complained to Vice-President Mike Pence, calling for Atlas to be removed.

The Post reported that at one meeting in the Oval Office, Atlas placed himself behind the Resolute Desk after Trump had left the room. The scientist, a senior fellow from Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, denied the account.

On Sunday, Twitter took down the tweet in which Atlas said: “Masks work? NO.” The company said the post violated its policy on Covid-19 misinformation that prohibits “sharing false or misleading content which could lead to harm”.

In a stream of posts, Atlas falsely claimed that several US states and other countries had taken up widespread use of masks without evidence of any positive effect. He also incorrectly said that there were “many harms” to the practice.

Twitter’s move to block Atlas’s public comments is the latest controversy to hit since he joined the White House as a pandemic adviser in August.

A neuroradiologist, Atlas has no training in virology or epidemiology yet is understood to have become the key scientific influence on the president, eclipsing respected experts such as Anthony Fauci, the country’s top specialist in infectious diseases.

Atlas’s views on how to deal with the virus have raised alarm in scientific circles. He has repeatedly cast doubt on masks and social distancing, and suggested people could gain natural self-defenses against the disease even without a vaccine through “herd immunity”.

Shortly after his appointment to the White House, 78 of his former colleagues at Stanford medical school wrote an open letter in which they lamented that many of Atlas’s opinions “run counter to established science”. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was recently overheard discussing Atlas on a phone call. “Everything he says is false,” Redfield said.

Coronavirus is back on the ascendant, across the US. Data compiled by Johns Hopkins records more than 8m confirmed cases, with almost 220,000 deaths.

Friday saw the daily number of confirmed cases exceed 70,000 for the first time since July, with almost 900 deaths. In a leaked report, the White House put 26 states in the “red zone” – indicating a dangerous level of new infections – including almost all states in the midwest.

The surge in cases spells political peril for Trump as he finalizes his push for re-election in two weeks’ time. His rival, former vice-president Joe Biden, has put criticism of Trump’s handling of the pandemic at the center of his campaign.

Despite the rising numbers, and despite his own recent illness from the disease, Trump has stuck to his line that the threat of the virus is overplayed. At a rally in Nevada on Sunday he repeated his false claim that the US was “rounding the turn”.

In North Carolina on Sunday, Biden said: “As my grandfather would say, ‘This guy’s gone around the bend if he thinks we’ve turned the corner.’ Things are getting worse, and he continues to lie to us about circumstances.”

Trump and Atlas have regularly been seen in public without wearing masks. Their behavior goes against the official advice of the administration’s own public health agency, the CDC, which recommends mask-wearing in public settings.

Masks are particularly important for preventing the spread of the virus from people who show no symptoms and may not know they are contagious. Face coverings are primarily useful in protecting other people, rather than the individuals wearing them.