Fox News’ Brit Hume interviewed former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson about the coronavirus crisis lockdowns across the country for the FOX News Rundown podcast.
Read the full conversation here:
Brit Hume: Alex Berenson is with me. He's a prominent skeptic of the coronavirus lockdown and his Twitter feed has become a repository of unconventional wisdom about this. And to those who may not know him, he's a former New York Times reporter, a successful thriller writer and a man who wrote a book fighting the conventional wisdom that marijuana is safe and should be legalized. And until about a month ago or a little more, if you looked at his Twitter feed, it was about that issue. And then somewhere along the way, in early March, he began to tweet about the coronavirus. And at first say, Alex, your early tweets about this tended to reflect the alarm. Am I right about that?
Alex Berenson: In fact, actually, I was pretty interested in this even, you know, even as early as early February, you know, maybe even late January. And you can see some tweets back then, too. You know, I certainly was. You know, in China, things seem to be very worrisome. And you can find early papers suggesting that, you know, this is going to spread to Beijing and Shanghai and the other Chinese megacities. It's going to be uncontrollable. It doesn't matter what happens. And, you know, I certainly, you know, in February, as it was spreading in Wuhan or as the deaths were rising and Hong was very concerned, I would say the first thing that I noticed was that it didn't seem to spread elsewhere in China. And that wasn't it wasn't entirely clear why. But I was still quite concerned in early March. And, you know, people that you know, people who don't like me, it's that, oh, look, you were panicking back then and like, well, yes, I was definitely worried about this. I would say a couple things happened. One was the first thing that happened was I realized what the actual mortality rates looked like by age. So in other words, no one is saying that that source code, too, isn't real, that's not a real virus, that it doesn't kill lots of people. But the question is, why is it that nearly all the people it affects the most seem to be over 70 and many, many of those seem to be over 80 and 90. And so that raises the question whether some people are dying with rather than of this. And secondly, if there are things that we could do that might protect those people rather than, you know, shutting down all society and causing massive economic harm, massive societal harm.
Brit Hume: By the time but by the time you began to express skepticism about this, we had no full lockdown. [What] we're now experiencing really hadn't begun.
Alex Berenson: That's right.
Brit Hume: So what was it? I mean, you’ve partly answered this. What was it that prompted your skepticism that this threat was being overstated? Was it simply the fact that it was distributed within the population to certain segments? Well, apparently not much elsewhere.
Alex Berenson: I would say that was the first question [was] this doesn't really look like the Spanish flu. The Spanish flu. Flu killed, you know, tons of children, tons of young adults. It was very, very dangerous across the board. This didn't look like that to me. But I would say the first thing when my radar really went off as a journalist was on March 25th. Neil Ferguson, who is the author of, the lead author, of the seminal paper, the Imperial College Paper, that said two million Americans might die if we did nothing about this, gave testimony in Britain where he reduced his estimate for the number of people who would die from 500,000 to 20,000 now. Now, the 500,000 number assumed no mitigation efforts at all in Britain. OK. But the paper came out on March 16th. And in that paper, it says that even with reasonable mitigation efforts, a quarter of a million people will die. And a week later, nine days later, he testified to the British government that the most likely number was 200,00. And I thought to myself, how on earth did we get from 250000 to 20000 in a matter of days? And I pointed this out and it was the first thing that really grabbed people's attention. Elon Musk retweeted it. Other major people retweeted it. And all the sudden I was in the middle of this and I have been ever since. And since then it has been clear over and over again that the models, the especially the now in the United States and University of Washington model are just completely wrong. And they've completely overstated the hospitalizations and the ICU needs of this.
Brit Hume: What do you say to those who say, well, you know, models are models? Dr. Fauci said that he's always skeptical of models and that, you know, they do the best they can with the available data. And as data becomes more plentiful, they revise and that's a normal process and that's really just what happened here.
Alex Berenson: That's fine....I think we can all agree about that. But what I don't like is when people say all the models didn't account for lockdowns. That's not true. University of Washington model explicitly accounted for that. So here's the question, Brit. If we want to say, OK, the models were wrong back in mid-March, back in late March when we did all this incredibly draconian stuff. OK, well, now we have more data. We have better data. This doesn't look as dangerous as it was. It looks significantly less dangerous. It's clear that the hospitals in the United States are not being overrun with this, that if anything, hospitals are emptier than they were a month ago and under severe financial strain. So if the models were wrong, these guys did the best they could. We can all agree about that. Let's update our policies. Let's not do what we were doing a month ago. And that to me is you can't have it both ways. If you want to say, OK, the models were wrong. Why are we doing stuff that's even more draconian than we were a month ago?
Brit Hume: Dr. Fauci would say that, well, yes, the models overstated things, but when we made the decision to recommend a 30-day additional mitigation effort, we were relying on more than the models...
We were relying on other information.
Alex Berenson: What is that other information? I mean, so so you have to remember, there's been sort of four justifications for the lockdowns. First was flatten the curve, which doesn't actually mean that you're going to reduce the total number of infections. It just means you're going to reduce the burden on the hospital system. OK. There's been no burden on the hospital system.
Brit Hume: I wouldn't say there's been no burden.
Alex Berenson: Well, outside the outside New York City, no burden. And I will stick to that. I mean, maybe Detroit hospitals in the United States are literally closing down because they're empty right now. OK, so. So, yes, New York City, things got very dicey for a few days, a couple of weeks. But even in New York now, the hospitals are beginning to empty out a little bit. So that's reason one reason to wait two weeks. This is going to happen. The surge is going to happen. Well, we've waited two weeks and we waited two weeks more. And it's clear that there is going to be no surge right now. Reason three. Second wave. Well, second wave is sort of this amorphous concept that, you know, how long are we going to wait for a second wave? We're going to wait... next summer. Are we going to wait till next fall? How long do we have to wait before there is before we reopen the country? How much economic and societal devastation does there have to be? And then the fourth one, the new one is we need everybody to be able to be tested. Well, why is that? What difference does it make if people have this infection or not? If they're not winding up sick and in the hospital, the hospital utilization is what matters more than anything else.
Brit Hume: Why do you say that?
Alex Berenson: Well, for two reasons. First of all, we know that a certain number of people who are hospitalized are going to wind up on ventilators and on, you know, and ultimately some unfortunate percentage of people are going to die. So hospitalizations are a leading indicator. They tell us what's going to happen going forward. But the second reason is, again, to go back to the ultimate justification or the original justification for the lockdowns was we don't want our health care system to collapse. We don't want doctors to be so busy only treating Covid patients that they can't treat anybody else. We need to mitigate that. And nurses, too, and medical staff, too. And so if that is the focus of the lockdowns, the reason for the lockdowns initially, then that's what we should be caring about.
Brit Hume: The argument is made...that the reason why these model numbers and projections of mortality, caseload and so on have come down so sharply is that the American people have responded so willingly to the mitigation efforts. And it is their having done so that accounts for this...Do you agree with that?
Alex Berenson: No, I don't... We need to sort of distinguish between social distancing, voluntary moderate social distancing and hard lockdowns...Just last week, a very, very good paper came out of Germany. And this was published by the official German Public Health Institute. And let me just let me digress for one second. It's funny to me, when people call me a skeptic or a contrarian or say I'm presenting, you know, alternative views. I present, wherever I can, published research findings, government findings or, you know, or newspaper articles. This is not, you know, some anonymous fourth-hand source. The information I get and present is as good, you know, as what The New York Times is presenting in terms of the sourcing, because I think this is way too important to be talking about rumor and speculation. OK. I try to I try always to go with the government documents when they're available. So to go back to this German government paper. Germany has had a pretty aggressive testing program and they've had a relatively contained epidemic. What they found was that the infection rate...seemed to peak in late January. I'm sorry, late February, early March. And then Germany had a couple of moderate social distancing measures imposed. In the end, the infection rate went way down. And by the time they imposed the hard lockdown, which was March 23rd, the infection rate was already at about 1, meaning every person was only giving it to one other person, meaning it wasn't really spreading very fast. And it's basically stayed in that range in the in the two weeks before it had been in the 3 range. So here's there's..a good, coherent case.
Brit Hume: There was a study that came out, I guess, yesterday from Stanford based on several thousand patient blood tests, 7000 people blood tests in Santa Clara County, Calif., and it concluded with just what you suggested. And the argument is made about that, that that that test was not really a random sample, even though it was fairly large, because people signed up for it on Facebook. And therefore, it was sort of self-selecting, a certain category of people, many of whom probably were just curious to see if they had had had or had the virus. What's your take on that?
Alex Berenson: I mean, I think that study is not perfect all by itself. It's you know, it's a piece of evidence. By my count, there had been seven or eight pieces of evidence that point in that direction in the last week. There was a paper that was published in the New England Journal that looked at pregnant women in New York City. How many of them had antibodies versus how many showed signs of the virus? And I believe 15 percent of the women had had antibodies, meaning they had already been infected and only a tiny fraction of those had any symptoms. There's a there is a study that came out. This to me was an absolutely amazing one in Boston, looking at people in a homeless shelter. They looked at 400 people in a homeless shelter and 35 per cent of them had had antibodies, meaning they had been infected. And I believe two of those people had had symptoms. So two out of 150 had any symptoms. There's aircraft carrier data, which is actually, you know, aircraft carriers, a big enclosed environment. There were there was an infection wave on a French aircraft carrier. A thousand people tested positive. About 2 percent of those were ever hospitalized. And one of the thousand wound up in the ICU. And I believe he was over 50. So so we're getting more and more data from more and more places. None of it by itself is definitive. But when you have seven or eight studies and that is how many I've counted just in the last week, that all point the same way. There's one. Germany, one from Johnson County, Kansas. You really have to ask yourself, is this nearly as dangerous as we were told it was? Not that. Again, not that it isn't real. Not that it can't hurt people, especially, you know, elderly people and people with co-morbidities. But is it dangerous in a way that justifies what we have done to our society?
Brit Hume: Well, the answer from all the data points that you cite, there would appear to be obviously no. But you have been kind of a lonely voice on this. What accounts for that?
Alex Berenson: I don't know. I think, look, I understand politically the given the pain that some of these steps have caused. Why it is that once you get move forward, it's hard to to sort of climb down from a lockdown... But why the media has behaved the way it has. Isn't it is less clear to me. I mean, I sort of have two thoughts on that. One is that obviously the media is very, very New York-centric. And what happened in New York is exceptional... New York doesn't look like anywhere else in the United States. You know, both in terms of its population density, its reliance on mass transit, and clearly what happened in the city in late March..was bad. You know, a lot of people did die. We don't quite know how many yet. But.. a lot of people died and and that scared a lot of people. And then and in New York, people are locked up in their apartments. Still, they don't want to come out and they end there and they're communicating that fear to the rest of the country where things might look quite different. But the other reason is, and unfortunately, I think this has become a bigger part of it in the last couple of weeks is a lot of people hate Donald Trump.
A lot of people in the media hate Donald Trump. Look, I don't want to talk about my politics, but I will say this. I'm a registered independent, OK? ...I am a registered independent. And it is clear that many people in the media who don't like Donald Trump on some level blame him for everything that's happened and that that seems to have shaded almost into “we're not going to recognize that maybe this isn't as terrible as we thought it was a month ago.” And in the Times, The New York Times, where I worked for 10 years and I loved working, could have written everything they wrote about New York City and how terrible things were in New York and still presented a much more balanced picture of what was going on in the rest, the United States. And they didn't do it. And I don't know why.
Brit Hume: So let me ask you about the death rate, which is a pretty good number to use, because it can be compared with other countries. It can be compared with other disease outbreaks and so on. I posted on Twitter some time back [that] it looked like the death rate in New York has been overstated. And the response to that was exactly wrong, that it has not been overstated. Its almost certainly being understated because lots of people have died from this that we didn't know had it or they didn't know had it. And therefore the real death rate must be larger than the official death rate we have now. Do you buy that?
Alex Berenson: So. So this is a really complicated argument and it complicated for three reasons. Two to I would say are real and one is political. The first reason is that, again, because of who's dying with this, who isn't, you know, who's dying with slash of it, that's a hard distinction to make. If you're a hospice patient and you get the flu or you get the coronavirus and you die, did your underlying disease kill you or did it did the infection kill you? I mean, I would say most people would say that the underlying disease kills you. But there's a legitimate point to this point.
Brit Hume: It seems that they're coding the death of anyone who had the disease as having died from it.
Alex Berenson: That's right. And you can argue that either way. ....Some states have decided that you don't even have to have a positive test, that basically it looks like almost anybody who is aged and has any sort of flu-like or pneumonia-like symptoms and dies. You know, in the last month. It's gonna be coded as a Covid death without a positive test. And it's hard to know why. Why the states would do that except to try to get the death counts up....
Alex Berenson: So because there are these problems around coding, unfortunately, the only thing we're gonna be able to look at going forward is all cause mortality. Now, there's how many people died in the United States and Europe. And, you know, we're pretty good at counting deaths. If you die in, you know, anywhere in the world, especially, death isn't usually asymptomatic. That's right. That's right. Somebody is going to notice and you're gonna get your case is gonna be written down. So what's very interesting is if you look at the US, it looks like all cause mortality, all deaths in the US are down this year. And that is certainly true beyond the last couple of weeks. In other words, January, February, March, deaths are down. It was actually a pretty mild winter for whatever reason. And in in Europe, that that also seems to be true, although in just the last couple of weeks, you can see a spike in all cause. Mortality, by the way. It's not it's not a million deaths or you know, or even a hundred thousand. It is. It is in the tens of thousands. It is comparable to a bad flu year. So so in the end, that may be the only number that we can rely on is how many people in the United States died this year compared to a typical year.
Brit Hume: Yeah, I think that's probably what we’re gonna end up having to use...because it's the best one and one where we have data. Yep. You know, the data are all comparable. So if you were making policy here for going forward, what would you recommend?
Alex Berenson: So a couple of things. First of all, I'd reopen the schools as quickly as possible. One thing that is maddening to me is that children are in very, very low risk from this and other low risk of infection or simply a low risk for getting really sick. It's interesting. It looks like they may actually be at low risk of infection, too. They're certainly at low risk of getting very sick, much less dying. If you look at all the data worldwide and it's not just children, it's young adults, too. It looks to me like more people over the age of 100 have died from COVA than under the age of 30.
Brit Hume: What measures would you recommend if you reopen the schools for protecting adults, teachers and staff.
Alex Berenson: So you don't really have to worry that much about protecting adults from children? There's evidence that children's viral loads are so low. This is not the flu. In this case, children actually get it from adults rather than the other way around. So look, if there are teachers who have severe co-morbidities who don't want to come in for a while, you know, maybe you have more limited schooling until we figure some of that out. But the idea that we are denying children in education and in some cases we're sticking children at home with abusive or drug using parents, and they can't be seen by any other adults right now. That that is disgusting to me because children are not at risk here. They are effectively not at risk. And [to] anybody who wants to tell me I'm wrong, let's look at the numbers together. OK, so so so the first thing I would do is try to figure out how to reopen schools even in a limited way as quickly as possible. Secondly, I do it. I'd look at in states where hospitals are not under pressure and that's basically every state now except New York. I would very quickly try to move to a phased reopening. So you say you first thing is retail or I'm sorry, first things offices, because there's again, there's very, very little evidence of transmission outside the home, outside public transportation. And to those are those are the two main vectors. And then there are these sort of super spreading events where you might get a lot of people together at a, you know, at a concert or at a sporting event. And there's some spreading there. But in it, there's basically there's no oh, here's the second thing I do right now, as I'd reopen all the parks and all the beaches and everything else, there's essentially no evidence of significant transmission through outdoor activities. And it's really unfair to people to do that to them. So so, OK, so open the schools as quick as you can. Open the beaches and the parks right now and the playgrounds. And then in states where there's where there's not pressure very, very quickly, if not immediately open offices, people need to be able to get back to work. You know, you maybe wait a couple of days if that open stores and... then the next thing is hospitality. Right. Bars and restaurants. And maybe you want to see if there's any evidence of pressure on hospitals. You open those in, you know, in a week or two and then mass events are going to be the last thing that that that happened.
Brit Hume: Would you recommend continued social distancing?
Alex Berenson: I think people are gonna do that on their own. And I think, look, if people want to wear masks, they can wear masks. Certainly, if you're in a crowded subway or something like that, that makes sense. I don't think there's super strong evidence that masks make a big difference. But if it makes you feel more comfortable, it's it's a good thing to do. Oh, and the other thing I do immediately and it looks like we are trying to do this and it should have happened three weeks ago is antibody testing. Let's figure out how many people have been infected with this thing so that we can figure out what the fatality rate really is. ...
Brit Hume: How much testing do you think has to be done before we can get back to [norma]l?
Alex Berenson: So I think so. I think the antibody testing matters. I think the infectious testing is an excuse to delay this. And I so I don't I think it's a I think I think putting this on widespread testing...of people who are actually infected right now is meaningless. If people get sick, they can get tested. I mean, I'm not saying we shouldn't test people. But... saying we need to be able to do a million tests a day before we can reopen is just an excuse not to reopen the country.
Brit Hume: What do you think is behind this? Look what you've touched on this. But I'm really curious because I can't imagine the answer. You got doctors Fauci and Birx... who I find to be serious, qualified, articulate, able. And they're on board with this. They don't seem to yet be having made any kind of a turn in recognition of the data you cite. What's up with that in your view?
Alex Berenson: I don't know why that is. There are very good epidemiologists now speaking out. On the other side, most notably a Swedish epidemiologist who ran Sweden's public health department for a number of years and thinks the lockdowns are a huge mistake. He actually gave a very good interview a couple of days ago where he...talked about this in detail.....When people take a public position that causes massive, massive, massive economic and societal disruption, it's going to be hard to get them to acknowledge that position was wrong or even that even that it can be changed right now in the light of new data.
Brit Hume:...I have one last question. What has your life been like since you waded into this fray?
Alex Berenson: My life has been insane. It's been it's been all this all the time.... Obviously, this has become pretty intense for me. You know, I get a lot of e-mails from people. I try to read them all. I try to respond to as many as I can. You know, other people in the media who don't like me, I don't particularly care about that. But it's just sort of an added complexity to this. So. So but you know what? I don't care. All I want is for the right policy measures to be undertaken. And if I can kind of get information to people who who are getting a totally, you know, or largely incorrect picture from places like The Times and CNN, and I can do that with data then then then I'll do it.
Brit Hume: Have you been asked to do a book or have you been asked to write for media outlets?
Alex Berenson: So, yes, I have a couple of publishers have approached me about a book. I've told them I don't even have time to think about it right now, which is true. Interestingly, a couple of media outlets have asked me to write for them, not places like The Times or The Atlantic or places, you know, or anybody like that. ...But places [like] independent investigative outlets are asking me. And I just haven't had time. But you know, it's very disturbing to me to have seen the media group think on this, given the stakes.
Brit Hume: You're generous to take the time you did. Thank you. Hang in there.