WHO walks back comments on asymptomatic coronavirus spread, says much is still unknown

Health, Fitness & Food

Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the World Health Organization’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, speaks during a press conference following an emergency committee meeting over the new coronavirus in Geneva on Jan. 22, 2020.

Pierre Albouy | AFP | Getty Images

The World Health Organization scrambled Tuesday to clarify its comments earlier this week that transmission of the coronavirus by people who never developed symptoms is “very rare,” which drew skepticism from physicians and others across social media. 

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, said it’s a “really complex question” and much is still unknown.

“The majority of transmission that we know about is that people who have symptoms transmit the virus to other people through infectious droplets. But there are a subset of people who don’t develop symptoms,” she said on a live Q&A streamed across multiple social media platforms. “To truly understand how many people don’t have symptoms, we don’t actually have that answer yet.” 

Asymptomatic spread of the coronavirus does occur, Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, said during the Q&A. However, the portion of asymptomatic individuals who transmit the virus remains a “big open question.”

“There is much to be answered on this. There is much that is unknown,” he added. “It’s clear that both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals are part of the transmission cycle. The question is what is the relative contribution of each group to overall number of cases.”

An asymptomatic person is someone with Covid-19 who doesn’t have symptoms and never develops symptoms. Both scientists clarified that it’s not the same as someone who later develops symptoms, who would be classified as pre-symptomatic.

“Some estimates of around 40% of transmission may be due to asymptomatic, but those are from models, so I didn’t include that in my answer yesterday, but wanted to make sure that I covered that here,” Kerkhove said. 

On Monday, WHO officials said asymptomatic people aren’t driving the spread of the virus, casting doubt on concerns by some researchers that the disease could be difficult to contain due to asymptomatic infections.

“From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual,” Kerkhove said at a news briefing Monday from the WHO’s Geneva headquarters. “It’s very rare.”

Kerkhove said Tuesday she was referring to “a very few studies, some two or three studies, that have been published that actually tried to follow asymptomatic cases.”

“That’s a very small subset of studies,” she said.

Ryan acknowledged that Kerkhove’s comments created a stir, saying they may have been “misinterpreted or maybe we didn’t use the most elegant words to explain that.”

“We need that debate,” he said. 

“If journalists and the public think we’re straying away from evidence, then fine,” he said. That’s what this is for. If you think there isn’t a basis for what we’re saying then let’s have that debate one-on-one. That’s why we’re here. That was not intended. That was not the intention of the statement.”

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