WHO says comments on asymptomatic individuals a ‘misunderstanding’

The World Health Organization walked back on comments it had previously made regarding asymptomatic individuals and whether they greatly contribute to the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

On Monday, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said she believes the spread of the coronavirus from people who are asymptomatic is “rare.”

“From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual,” said Van Kerkhove.

These comments seemed to contradict previous research that indicated that individuals who contracted COVID-19 but exhibited none of the common symptoms were rapidly contributing to the high surge of infections.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously noted that some people who contract COVID-19 may not show any symptoms until 14 days after being infected.

After Van Kerkhove claimed asymptomatic transmission was rare, she spoke on Tuesday, June 9 regarding her previous statement, calling it a “misunderstanding. Van Kerkhove also added that there is still so much the organization doesn’t know about the virus. 

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“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 and to truly understand how many people don’t have symptoms, we don’t actually have that answer yet,” said Van Kerkhove at a press briefing.

She added that anyone from 6 percent of the population to 41 percent of the population may be infected but not exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. 

“We do know that some people who are asymptomatic or some people who don’t have symptoms can transmit the virus on,” said Van Kerkhove. 

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Van Kerkhove attributed her comments on asymptomatic spread being “rare” to a handful of studies that have analyzed cases of asymptomatic patients with the coronavirus in order to see how many those individuals infected over time. 

Van Kerkhove said these comments were not a policy of WHO and that she was simply answering a “complex” question.

“I used the phrase ‘very rare,’ and I think that that’s a misunderstanding to state that ‘asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare,’” said Van Kerkhove. “What I was referring to was a subset of studies, I also referred to some data that isn’t published.”

Confusion over the transmission of asymptomatic individuals comes as health officials expressed concern over coronavirus spikes due to the recent police brutality protests that have erupted across the country following the death of George Floyd. 

“Whether they’re fired up or not, that doesn’t prevent them from getting the virus,” said Bradley Pollock, chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, delivered a message for the protesters who gathered in the southern city: “If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to go get a COVID test this week.”

The CDC has warned on its website that it may be possible for one to contract the coronavirus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes. But the CDC said that “this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about how this virus spreads.”

Health experts fear that silent carriers of the virus could unwittingly infect others at protests where people are packed cheek to jowl, many without masks, many chanting, singing or shouting. The virus is dispersed by microscopic droplets in the air when people cough, sneeze, sing or talk.

One study published on March 12 in “Eurosurveillance,” a peer-reviewed medical journal, found that 17.9 percent of the 3,711 passengers and crew members aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship were asymptomatic.

According to the study, 3,063 people on board the ship were administered COVID-19 tests. A total of 634 people tested positive as of Feb. 20.

Editor's note: This story has been updated from its previous June 8 version to reflect new comments from the World Health Organization.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.