UPDATE: World Health Organization official Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove walked back her widely reported comment that asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 is “very rare,” stating that experts “don’t actually have that answer yet.”
“I was responding to a question at the press conference, I wasn’t stating a policy of WHO or anything like that,” Van Kerkhove said in a live-streamed Q&A the day after her “very rare” comment caused a stir. “I was just trying to articulate what we know. I used the phrase ‘very rare,’ and I think that that’s misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare. What I was referring to was a subset of studies.”
As underscored by Health Feedback, WHO uses the scientific definition of “asymptomatic,” those who never develop any symptoms, and distinguishes that from “presymptomatic,” those who currently show no symptoms but will eventually develop them.
Original report below:
It seems that reports about how COVID-19 can spread even among people who are asymptomatic may have been false, at least according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
According to the WHO, the spread of COVID-19 among asymptomatic people is “very rare.”
“Coronavirus patients without symptoms aren’t driving the spread of the virus, World Health Organization officials said Monday, casting doubt on concerns by some researchers that the disease could be difficult to contain due to asymptomatic infections,” reports CNBC. “Some people, particularly young and otherwise healthy individuals, who are infected by the coronavirus never develop symptoms or only develop mild symptoms. Others might not develop symptoms until days after they were actually infected.”
Though the spread of COVID-19 through asymptomatic patients can occur, as the original evidence seemed to indicate, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, said those instances are “very rare.” Going forward, governments should instead focus on isolating and tracking infected people showing symptoms, and anyone who comes in contact with them.
“From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a second individual. It’s very rare.” Dr. Van Kerkhove said at a news briefing from the United Nations agency’s Geneva headquarters.
Despite that admission, Van Kerkhove said that the medical community will not have a definitive answer on the spread of COVID-19 through asymptomatic patients until more data is uncovered.
“We have a number of reports from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing,” she said. “They’re following asymptomatic cases. They’re following contacts. And they’re not finding secondary transmission onward. It’s very rare.”
“What we really want to be focused on is following the symptomatic cases,” she added. “If we actually followed all of the symptomatic cases, isolated those cases, followed the contacts, and quarantined those contacts, we would drastically reduce” the outbreak.
As CNBC noted, disproving the notion that COVID-19 spreads through asymptomatic transmission could have a tremendous impact on the future of social distancing and lockdown measures. At the start of the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said that social distancing was necessary to prevent asymptomatic transition.
“These findings also suggest that to control the pandemic, it might not be enough for only persons with symptoms to limit their contact with others because persons without symptoms might transmit infection,” the CDC study said.
At the outset of the pandemic, reports said that COVID-19 could spread through surfaces on which it could live for up to nine days. Last month, the CDC updated that statement to indicate that transmission of the virus on surfaces is also rare.
“Recent guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sheds new light on how coronavirus spreads through surfaces,” reported USA Today. “Though there is the possibility that coronavirus could be transmitted by touching a surface — and then your nose, mouth or eyes — the likelihood of that is lower than person-to-person contact, which is believed to be the primary way coronavirus is transmitted.”
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