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Dan Rodricks: A Hopkins surgeon turns Fox pandemic pundit. Some cheer, some groan. | COMMENTARY

Dr. Marty Makary, right, a surgeon and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has made frequent appearances on cable shows, including Tucker Carlson's on Fox News, during the pandemic.
Dr. Marty Makary, right, a surgeon and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has made frequent appearances on cable shows, including Tucker Carlson's on Fox News, during the pandemic. (Fox News)

Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has become highly visible during the coronavirus pandemic, authoring provocative commentary for national newspapers and appearing on some of the highest-rated shows on television. His frequent contributions to conservative media peg him as an iconoclast and darling of the anti-vaxxers. But Makary’s role in pandemic punditry is complicated.

Over the course of the crisis, he’s been attacked as an alarmist and praised as a challenger to the medical establishment. He believes vaccines save lives but that the nation’s vaccination rollout was “boneheaded” and aspects of it still misguided.

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As the crisis emerged, in March 2020, Makary warned the Fox News audience that the U.S. would have “hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of people with the infection” and lamented a nation “still in denial.” The blowback from Fox viewers, he says, was harsh.

Two months later, The New York Times published a long Makary opinion piece that suggested universal masking as a way for the nation to reopen safely after the lockdowns of late winter and spring.

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But, as the months passed, Makary became a critic of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in cable appearances and on the op-ed pages of The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He opposed the vaccination-for-everyone agenda of the nation’s public health establishment, saying an inoculation program more sharply focused on the most vulnerable Americans would have saved thousands of lives.

He claimed certain children would suffer psychologically from having to wear masks in school.

In a February op-ed that did not age well, Makary predicted that, given trends at the time, the nation would reach herd immunity by April. In that piece for the Journal, he hit on a theme he has repeated several times — that the medical establishment has dismissed the significance of “natural immunity,” the ability of the body to fight off the virus after infection.

That was the subject of Makary’s most recent appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox.

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Carlson reported the results of a comprehensive Israeli study that found people who had survived infection far more likely to fend off the virus than those who had been vaccinated. Given that, Carlson said, it was “insane” for the CDC or any organization to push vaccination for people who had been infected.

Makary complained that the CDC had refused to acknowledge the prevalence and importance of natural immunity because of the agency’s focus on vaccination.

Such media comments have raised concern among Hopkins colleagues. One of them, Dr. Stuart Ray, an infectious disease specialist, called Makary out on Twitter for downplaying the risks of infection. In a television appearance in February, Ray rejected Makary’s calculations that the virus would be “mostly gone by April” and likened the prediction to Trump’s magical claim that the country would emerge from the crisis by Easter 2020.

Ray made his remarks on CNN. Makary says he has been turned down for appearances on that channel. But he has been invited several times to Fox, where he and Carlson have been on a similar trajectory regarding the pandemic.

Early on, Carlson famously warned the nation (and then-President Donald Trump) to take it seriously. But since then he downplayed the threat, complained about social distancing and lockdowns, and dismissed Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as a “buffoon.”

Makary didn’t go that far. In fact, he’s careful about what he says and writes, always stating, for instance, that he supports vaccination. But, reviewed cumulatively, his most recent opinions run against the medical mainstream and challenge the CDC’s integrity.

It’s not always what Makary says but where he says it. On Carlson’s show, for instance, he served the host’s narrative that the CDC has been dishonest, that the agency intentionally plays down natural immunity in favor of mass vaccinations and that people who’ve had COVID-19 do not need the vaccine.

In fact, the study found that people who were infected then vaccinated were better protected against reinfection than those who were not. And, while Carlson might sneer at the push for vaccination, medical experts still insist on it as the nation experiences a surge of hospitalizations.

“I would advise persons previously infected to consider adding vaccination if they haven’t already received it,” says Dr. David Thomas, chief of the Hopkins Division of Infectious Diseases. “SARS-CoV-2 infection can kill and produce long-term side effects that no one wants. Vaccination remains the best way to be protected without experiencing the risks of infection.”

Though he did not say so during his latest appearance on Fox, Makary says he supports at least one dose of the vaccine for people who’ve been previously infected. But even without it, he says, only a tiny fraction of people who’ve had COVID-19 will be reinfected.

“The medical community has a lot of groupthink,” Makary says. “They have ignored tremendous observational data that we don’t see severe illness attached to prior COVID sickness. If you’ve really had COVID, your body’s immune system has kicked in as reliably as it would with vaccination or better.”

I told him that, given the resistance to vaccination that persists in parts of the country where Fox, a font of misinformation about the virus, is most popular, his comments about natural immunity likely serve the anti-vaccination agenda.

“I’m not conservative, and I’m not a Republican,” he says, acknowledging that he takes flak from both sides of the political spectrum. “I hear things on Fox that bother me a lot. But do you boycott the network or, when you get an invitation to reach that community, can I use that as an opportunity to say things like I said in that interview and as I say frequently: ‘Vaccines save lives, I want people to get vaccinated’? … You don’t hear that a lot on Tucker Carlson.”

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