Tuesday the World Health Organization tried to quell confusion over remarks made just a day earlier that asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 is "very rare," by stating nearly the opposite, that asymptomatic transmissions could be almost as high as symptomatic ones.
Asymptomatic transmission is when a person who is infected with the virus but has no symptoms such as a cough, fever, or shortness of breath, is still contagious and able to pass the virus to someone else, including a more vulnerable family member who could suffer serious complications, even death.
At a second news conference in as many days, the W.H.O. representative who made the comment Monday, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, said Tuesday she wanted to make "some clarifications" about "some of the misunderstandings from what I said yesterday," and made remarks that were in direct contrast to the one a day earlier.
She said she was caught off-guard by a reporter's question during the Monday press conference and at that time didn't give enough information. She discussed data suggesting COVID-19 transmission from asymptomatic people was rare but neglected to mention the volumes of evidence indicating it's common.
"What I was referring to yesterday in the press conference were a very few studies, some two or three studies, that have been published, that actually try to follow asymptomatic cases. So people who are infected over time, and then look at all of their contacts and see how many additional people were infected. And that's a very small subset of studies," she said. "I wasn't stating a policy of W.H.O. or anything like that. I was just trying to articulate what we know. And in that I used the phrase, 'very rare,' and I think that's a misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare."
"What I didn't report yesterday," she continued, "Some modeling groups have tried to estimate what is the proportion of asymptomatic people that may transmit. Some estimates of around 40 percent of transmission may be due to asymptomatic. But those are from models and I didn't include that in my answer yesterday but I wanted to make sure that I covered that here."
Another W.H.O. official echoed Dr. Kerkhove's comments at Tuesday's press conference. Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization's emergency program, said the exact percentage of asymptomatic people who infect other people is a "big, open question."
"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 the overall number of cases?'" he said.
Monday's apparent blunder came at a time when the W.H.O. appears to be suffering from a credibility crisis. Last month President Trump announced the U.S. is terminating its relationships with the W.H.O., to include re-directing funding to other public health organizations. The president accused the W.H.O. of furthering the spread of the disease because of pressure from China to minimize that nation's role in the pandemic.
On January 14, 2020, the W.H.O. tweeted, "Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus identified in Wuhan, China."
The W.H.O. waited until March 11, 2020, to declare COVID-19 a pandemic, after it had already spread to 114 countries and killed 4,300 people.
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