First, Tesla CEO Elon Musk dismissed the spread of the Coronavirus that causes covid-19. Then he called the general alarm over the pandemic “dumb.” Then he doubted that there was a shortage of ventilators and said that children were “essentially immune.” He said that “false positives” could account for up to 80% of virus tests. Three days later, he said it was “messed up” that people were calling him a “virus skeptic,” and two days after that Tesla said two employees had tested positive with coronavirus. Elon spent weeks downplaying covid-19, and while Tesla is now starting to help get ventilators to patients (months into the global pandemic), Musk’s early denialism was merely the beginning.
On March 27, 16 days after Rudy Gobert and Tom Hanks said they tested positive for the virus and the U.S. finally began to take this seriously, Elon Musk is joined only by pundits following President Donald Trump’s lead in downplaying the significance of the virus itself.
This should be no surprise. Musk relishes in any opportunity to work in public, and has on two other high-profile occasions committed to help with a notable issue in the world. Sometimes that ends in donations to school systems that make a situation marginally better, and sometimes that ends in a lawsuit and the new world record for the degree to which someone doesn’t save a youth soccer team. It has not usually ended in Elon Musk solving the problem.
Musk is trying to help here, too. After some public questioning of whether or not the well-reported need for respirators is real, Musk was informed directly by the state of New York, seemingly over Twitter, that the need existed, and he’s since gotten to work buying these life-saving devices and distributing them under the Tesla name. He now claims that he’s in the process of converting one of his factories to manufacturing these devices, a laudable choice even if it came a full week later than it easily could have. But this is a multi-faceted problem, and Musk’s contributions on the treatment side are tempered by his “Armchair epidemiologist” work on Twitter, where he’s spent the last two weeks reading limited publicly-available information and developing public opinions in real time to an audience of 32 million.
While he and his company have done meaningful work to solve the ventilator shortage he doubted as recently as March 18, both through current acquisitions and for longer-term plans to begin manufacturing of new products if necessary, he has also been conducting something of a disinformation campaign. His company is founded on his powerful voice and his self-branding as a polymath, but the simple reality is that he is not an expert in these fields. This is a war being waged on multiple fronts, and, while he may be helping on one, he is actively harming another.
Even his commitment to useful work, purchasing ventilators and committing to making more if need be, began after similar retooling work by Ford and General Motors.
The timeline of his tweets, from the now-infamous “The coronavirus panic is dumb” tweet on March 6th to his subtweet to the world that certain forms of moral condemnation are “Messed up,” lead directly to “We will build ventilators if there is a shortage” on March 18th, implying that his self-developed view led directly to a delay in the company itself taking this seriously. His delayed response to this latest crisis can still save lives, and should still be appreciated. But it does not mean that he ever planned to do the right thing, it just means that he backed himself into a corner that left the right thing as his only way out.
The right thing for the wrong reason is still good, and he can do the right thing for the wrong reason once again. All he has to do is accept that he is not a complete polymath, that his expertise in many fields does not make him an expert in every field, and simply stop trying to come to meaningful public conclusions about this pandemic. If he leaves epidemiology to experts, amplifies useful voices, and continues his delayed work to cut off a ventilator shortage at the head, Elon Musk can make this better.
But even that will not change that he spent the majority of this month making this worse.
To get a sense of just how dangerous Musk’s actions on Twitter have been, we spoke to someone with the in-the-field expertise Musk lacks. Adam J. Moore, an MPH candidate in Epidemiology of Microbeal Diseases at the Yale School of Public Health and member of their Emerging Respiratory Infections team currently focused on the covid-19 outbreak, has that exact formal experience, and was able to take some time to review the distinct danger of Musk’s insistence on sharing what Moore describes as his “uninformed opinion.” Below is his tweet-by-tweet breakdown:
In one particular tweet, shared on March 16, Musk posits that choloroquine should be considered for treating the virus. As Moore points out, this hope, shared a few days later by the President, comes from studies tied to in vitro testing, “Which just means cells in a petri dish.” These experiments rarely translate into the same results in actual humans,” he adds. “However successful these experiments are, they would never justify recommending the drug for clinical treatment. All these results do is support the idea of further study.”
Whether or not Trump found out about the choloroquine testing from Musk, he shared his belief that the drug could become a miracle cure on March 19. By March 22, at least one couple attempted to use a different chloroquine chemical, intended to clean fish tanks, to self-medicate. One of them died shortly afterward.
In a reply to another tweet, shared March 19, Musk shared his belief that kids are “essentially immune” to the virus, which Moore notes is a conflation of immunity with being asymptomatic. In reality, “No group of people have been proven to have a natural immunity to SARS-CoV-2. His claim is just a flat out lie. He disproves his own point in the same tweet by suggesting gatherings with kids and the elderly are risky. If kids are immune this doesn’t make sense because they wouldn’t be transmitting the virus, so the elderly wouldn’t be at risk. Being asymptomatic is what makes that situation risky. Suggesting kids are immune could convince parents to not take their child’s recent fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath with the seriousness that it needs.”
Also on the 19, Musk decided to analyze a study done by a professor in the field. “He’s not an epidemiologist,” Moore notes, “thus his opinion on what this professor concludes should not hold any value whatsoever.” On the study itself, he adds that “This professor is also operating under the argument of “what if we overreact and it all turns out ok?” He believes we are basing decisions based on imperfect data and thus we need to relax. It’s true that we are working with imperfect data, but that’s the thing about active pandemics. All the data is imperfect. We are operating on the fly with a brand new virus. We have to make decisions based on what we have. If we wait for perfect data we will be waiting forever. The decisions we are making are based on decades of influenza research and it’s being adjusted to fit for covid-19 because the diseases operates in a way that is similar enough that the influenza pandemic plan can be adjusted without too much catastrophe.
On the 20, Musk seemed to offer an iterative solution for hospitals to mitigate the total number of ventilators needed per-user. “Here,” Moore said, “Musk has decided to become a biomedical engineer and claim that it’s fine for severely ill patients to share equipment. The original post is about a rural care center that is short on equipment. So after offering Tesla services to make more ventilators, he’s already backtracking and saying less can be fine without any proof that sharing a ventilator would not be harmful. It goes well beyond the ‘personalized care’ he suggests. Just because he understands fluid dynamics for rocketry doesn’t mean he understands it in the context of emergency medical care. This comes off as a justification for being short on equipment because one could just MacGyver their way into more equipment no matter how unregulated and uncertified it is. This is just asking for a hospital acquired infection.”
Repeatedly, Musk has claimed that there is a substantial difference between “Dying with C19" and “Dying because of C19,” citing the same Italian graph on causes of death. This instance is from March 21.
“He has cited this graph multiple times with the claim that COVID19 is not actually killing people but other conditions are,” Moore says. “That’s literally what all the health professionals are saying but he has been twisting it to say something along the lines of, ‘They don’t die from COVID19, they die from a heart condition that COVID19 made worse. So cause of death is the heart condition, not COVID19,’ in an attempt to downplay how serious the pandemic is. He’s labeled these deaths as ‘false positives’ and claims they are skewing the data, despite the fact that he is showing data that clearly lays out these aren’t ‘false positives.’ The patients have COVID19 and it made their other ailments worse and they died. Any sector of people considered part of a ‘vulnerable population’ are more likely to have an underlying condition. His logic suggests we are blowing this out of proportion because only those people will be severely impacted. This is what happens when someone who doesn’t understand what a ‘comorbidity’ is tries to talk about them. This is just like saying ‘they didn’t die from AIDS, they died from the Kaposi Sarcoma caused by their AIDS, so their death should be tallied under KS, not AIDS.’”