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New evidence suggests asymptomatic transmission is less likely than previously thought.

On Monday, a representative from the World Health Organization called asymptomatic transmissions of the coronavirus "very rare." This was quickly bolstered by conservative lawmakers to call for the end of social distancing guidelines and the mandatory wearing of face masks. Many health experts and scientists questioned WHO's statement, citing a lack of evidence.

Today, WHO has walked back their original statement, clarifying that the observation "was based on a relatively small set of studies," and, "Evidence suggests people with symptoms are most infectious, but the disease can be passed on before they develop."

So What Happened?

Essentially, the original statement was referring to a small set of data from various countries in instances where an asymptomatic case had been followed up and secondary infections among the asymptomatic person's contact had been sought out. This data suggested that infections among the people the asymptomatic person had come in contact with were "very rare."

The WHO emphasized today that there is no way of knowing if this trend is true on a global scale.

According to the BBC, the Director of the WHO's health emergencies program, Dr Michael Ryan, said he was "absolutely convinced" asymptomatic transmission was occurring, but "the question is how much."

What Exactly Does Asymptomatic Mean, Anyway?

According Dr Van Kerkhove, the WHO's head of emerging diseases, there are three categories within the designation of "asymptomatic."

  • People who never develop symptoms (asymptomatic)
  • People who test positive when they don't yet have symptoms - but go on to develop them (pre-symptomatic)
  • People with very mild or atypical symptoms who do not realise they have coronavirus
So, while people who never develop symptoms are unlikely to pass on the virus, it's impossible to know if someone who has tested positive is truly asymptomatic or merely pre-symptomatic. If they are pre-symptomatic, then they are more likely to pass on the virus.

Should I Continue to Social Distance and Wear a Mask?

Yes. There is still so much that experts don't know about the spread of COVID-19, so while some evidence may suggest the virus isn't as easily passed on by as many people as previously thought, that doesn't mean you won't contract the virus if you aren't careful.

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