Elon Musk understates the importance of coronavirus, as the Tesla factory remains open in times of crisis

Elon Musk has downplayed the severity of the coronavirus epidemic, tweeted false information about the disease’s effect on children, and kept his northern California factory open despite a local “shelter-in-place” order, but the billionaire entrepreneur also says he’s willing to help.

On Thursday, the Tesla chief executive inserted himself into the global conversation on the coronavirus crisis, tweeting that his companies “will make ventilators if there is a shortage”.

It’s not the first time that Muskoffered help on social media amid a major crisis.

In 2018, he responded to fans on Twitter asking for him to help in the Tham Luong cave rescue by having his SpaceX engineers build a miniature submarine. (The device was not ultimately used in the successful rescue of the 12 boys and their coach, but Musk continued to court attention by calling one of the volunteers who assisted with the rescue effort a “pedo guy”. In late 2019, Musk was found not liable in a defamation suit brought by the cave explorer.

Musk’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has drawn substantial criticism in recent weeks. The celebrity executive has used his huge platform (32.4 million followers on Twitter) to cast doubt upon the danger of the virus, even as public health officials were attempting to persuade people to take the threat seriously.

On Thursday, the Tesla CEO continued to cast doubt on the seriousness of the crisis. He responded on Twitter to a post by the venture capitalist Ben Lee that linked to a Daily Wire write-up of an op-ed by John PA Ioannidis, a Stanford University professor of medicine and epidemiology. The Daily Wire is the website of rightwing commentator Ben Shapiro.

Ioannidis argued in his op-ed in the science publication Stat News on 17 March that decisions about Covid-19 were being made with insufficient and unreliable data. Ioannidis did not prescribe or denounce any policies, but did question how long social distancing could be maintained and whether school closures were the right course of action based on the evidence.

“Imo [in my opinion], this professor is correct,” Musk tweeted.

Musk also cited statistics which he argued showed that the growth rate of new infections is slowing. The Ioannidis article argued that current data is incomplete and unreliable.

Later in the day, Musk also asserted false information about the virus’s effect on children. Children with confirmed cases of Covid-19 have generally experienced milder symptoms than adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The largest study to date of children with the virus, published online in the journal Pediatrics, found that a small percentage of children became severely or critically ill with the disease. The study found that young children and infants were especially vulnerable to infection.

Musk tweeted that children are “essentially immune”, which is false.

Twitter, which on Wednesday announced new rules banning harmful misinformation about coronavirus, did not immediately respond to queries from the Guardian. Among the categories of misinformation that Twitter specifically said would be banned was: “Denial of established scientific facts about transmission during the incubation period or transmission guidance from global and local health authorities, such as ‘COVID-19 does not infect children because we haven’t seen any cases of children being sick.’”

Earlier this week, Musk drew criticism for keeping the Tesla factory in the San Francisco Bay Area open despite a “shelter-in-place” order from local officials designed to shutter “non-essential” businesses. (Tesla has reportedly agreed to reduce staffing levels from 10,000 to 2,500 amid the health crisis; workers have expressed concern about their conditions to BuzzFeed News.)

On Thursday evening, the company announced that it would cease manufacturing at the factory on 23 March.

“Despite taking all known health precautions, continued operations in certain locations has caused challenges for our employees, their families and our suppliers,” the company wrote in a notice to investors. “As such, we have decided to temporarily suspend production at our factory in Fremont, from end of day March 23, which will allow an orderly shutdown.”

Neither Musk nor Tesla has responded to requests for comment on his or the company’s approach to the pandemic.