My email to Scott Atlas

As reported in today’s New York Times, in response to a request by an intermediary, I made a last ditch attempt to explain the value of testing to WH advisor Scott Atlas in an email I sent on Sept. 21.

Predictably, it had no effect. He was already dead set on chasing herd immunity.

The subject and body of the email follow. I deleted the name of the person who introduced us, but made no other edits, even to the obvious typos.


Subject: Re: Testing


____ thanks for the introduction. Scott, good to e-meet you.

Let me try to summarize my thoughts briefly. Scott, then you can tell me what if anything else would be helpful.

  1. A program of “test and isolate” will reduce the effective reproduction number, R.

  2. A combined policy of (i) more “test and isolate” which reduces R and (ii) more social interaction and more economic activity which increases R can be designed so that the net effect on R is zero.

  3. The ratio of the cost of the additional testing to the additional economic activity that this combined policy will allow offers one way to estimate of the “rate or return” to spending on tests. My rough estimate is that this rate of return lies in the range of 10x to 100x so there is no doubt that test and isolate would be cost effective. To reach the higher end of the range, the cost of the test would have to be relatively low, say $10.

  4. The combined plan under #2 will lead to more total cases. If the main measure of policy success or failure were deaths, an increase in the number of cases would not matter. Under the current circumstances, an increase in the number of cases is likely to be interpreted as a sign of a policy failure. This increases the political cost to the administration of increasing the number of tests. A second best solution that avoids this cost might be to use at home tests and encourage people to voluntarily self-isolation. This way, the results from the tests need not generate any new confirmed cases.

Details on Targeting, Timing, and Compliance:

I hope this is helpful. Let me know if there is anything else I can provide that would be helpful.

Best regards, Paul