Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk told SpaceX employees that they have a higher risk of being killed in a car crash than dying from the coronavirus in a company-wide email on Friday.
The email, which was sent in the early hours of Friday morning and seen by BuzzFeed News, followed the same line of thinking that Musk has publicly expressed on Twitter, where he said last week that “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” In the note to employees of the rocket manufacturer, the SpaceX chief noted that all the evidence he had seen about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, “suggests that this is *not* within the top 100 health risks in the United States.”
“As a basis for comparison, the risk of death from C19 is *vastly* less than the risk of death from driving your car home,” Musk, who also runs electric car manufacturer Tesla, wrote to SpaceX employees. “There are about 36 thousand automotive deaths per deaths [sic], as compared to 36 so far this year for C19.”
Spokespeople for SpaceX and Tesla did not immediately return requests for comment.
Since tweeting his feelings about the coronavirus, Musk has been roundly criticized by those who feel he is not taking the current public health crisis seriously enough. Employees at SpaceX continue to work at the company’s Hawthorne, California headquarters, while Tesla’s offices and factories have remained open for automobile production. Meanwhile, the coronavirus has spread to more than 100 nations with more than 137,000 cases worldwide as of Friday. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization declared the worldwide outbreak a pandemic.
Health experts who spoke to BuzzFeed News condemned what they saw as Musk’s “false analogy.”
“It doesn’t make logical sense comparing those types of things,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “This virus is not a containable virus, and while most people do well with it, there is a proportion that don’t. People may end up dying from this, and we should be focused on trying to limit people’s exposure.”
Brandon Brown, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Riverside, called Musk’s logic “crazy” at a time when government organizations have encouraged social distancing to limit societal risk. He poked fun at Tesla’s Cybertruck, whose botched November unveiling led one of its designers to smash two of the car’s windows.
“Once we saw what happened with the windows of the car, maybe we should be worried about those crashes,” he said.
In the Friday morning email, which began by noting that employees should stay home if they’re feeling ill, Musk seemed to address employees’ concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, which President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Friday.
“Once we saw what happened with the windows of the car, maybe we should be worried about those crashes.”
“Isn’t C19 growing so fast that it will soon become a top 100 health risk for people who are otherwise healthy and young to middle-aged?” Musk wrote, posing a potential question. “The trends do not support this conclusion. Among other things, the media is using the ‘presumed’ positive number of C19 cases, not the *confirmed* number.”
In the US, more than 1,700 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed, with at least one in nearly every state. There have been at least 41 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The 36 deaths were almost all in high risk groups, particularly older people who already had prior lung damage, diabetes or heart disease,” Musk wrote, using an earlier count for deaths from the virus. “This was exacerbated in some cases by being stuck on a cruise ship with limited access to medical facilities.”
Musk’s argument in his email follows a line of thinking that he’s used on his Twitter account. There, in conversation with another user last week, he wrote that the fatality rate for the virus was “greatly overstated” because of the lack of testing resources to check those “with minor symptoms.”
“Virality of C19 is overstated due to conflating diagnosis date with contraction date & over-extrapolating exponential growth, which is never what happens in reality,” Musk tweeted last Saturday. “Keep extrapolating & virus will exceed mass of known universe.”
While there is still a lot of uncertainty about transmission rates and the impact of new mitigation efforts, epidemiologists and disease modelers fear a potentially vast toll. With total US case numbers growing at a rough average rate of 30% a day since the last week of February, the country could have more than 8,000 cases by next week, 40,000 cases in two weeks, and nearly 150,000 cases by month’s end.
Musk, however, has continued to criticize public reaction to the coronavirus. On Monday, as rumors swirled that organizers of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival would be suspending the event because of the outbreak, the Tesla and SpaceX chief wrote, “Coachella should postpone itself until it stops sucking.”
In his email on Monday, Musk said that he cares “very much” about his employees’ well-being and that he was “tracking this very closely every day.” He encouraged his employees to check the CDC website, and to not only view the “presumed positive” number but also a chart showing “actual positive cases” of COVID-19.
“As said above, if you’re feeling ill, especially with something contagious, it’s always better to stay home and take care of yourself,” he wrote.
Brown pushed back against Musk, calling the coronavirus the number one public health threat to the nation.
“To compare something like car crashes to a virus is just kind of disrespectful to employees,” he said.
Peter Aldhous contributed reporting from San Francisco.