FILE PHOTO: Technical Lead for the World Health Organization (WHO) Maria Van Kerkhove attends a news conference on the situation of the coronavirus (COVID-2019), in Geneva, Switzerland, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

THE NEUTRAL ZONE

The World Health Organization has come under fire by academics and public health experts for comments at a Monday press briefing that asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 is “very rare.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead for the WHO’s coronavirus response, clarified her comments on Tuesday, saying that her original comments were based on “a very few studies … that actually tried to follow asymptomatic cases.” Van Kerkhove had said in response to a reporter’s question on Monday that asymptomatic transmission does not appear to be driving the majority of infections. Her comments stemmed from contact tracing reports in several countries showing that the coronavirus most often spreads through infectious droplets due to coughing or sneezing. She added that many people who at first appear to be asymptomatic ultimately show very mild symptoms of the disease.

The WHO’s comments contradicted findings two weeks ago from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that more than a third of coronavirus infections are asymptomatic, as well as a Scripps Research study last week that nearly half of the virus’ spread could be traced back to people who never knew they had it. Professors and epidemiologists took the WHO to task on Twitter for giving the public a potentially false reason to stop socially distancing. In a memo, Harvard’s Global Health Institute responded to the WHO’s comments, saying “all of the best evidence suggests” that asymptomatic spread can and does occur, while an NBC medical correspondent clarified that while people who are asymptomatic are not highly contagious, people with even mild symptoms are. 

Van Kerkhove later said in an interview with Time that more transmission does happen among symptomatic individuals, but a risk of transmission is present for all. She emphasized the WHO’s recommendations for all healthy people to use face masks in public in areas where the virus is widespread.

MEDIA PERSPECTIVE

A Bad Game of Telephone at the World Health Organization – The Dispatch – 6/9/2020
The statement went off like a bomb on social media, with many using it to argue that the aforementioned policy regime had been misguided from the start. Others simply saw it as a bolt of unbelievably good news: “Translation: sending kids back to school does not require millions of test kits,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul. … Unfortunately, the news isn’t quite as good—or, if you prefer, as destructive to the previous public health consensus—as it seems. The primary culprit appears to have been a matter of unclearly defining terms.

Are asymptomatic people spreading the coronavirus? A WHO official’s words spark confusion, debate – Washington Post – 6/9/2020
Less than 24 hours later, WHO convened a special news conference to walk back its comments, stressing that much remains unknown. But the comment from Monday had already spread widely and been seized upon by conservatives and others to bolster arguments that people do not need to wear masks or maintain social distancing precautions.

To mask or not to mask: the evolving science and policy recommendations on masks – Mission Local – Mission Local – 6/9/2020
Because the virus is thought to spread primarily through droplets produced when infected individuals cough, sneeze, or speak, masks, in theory, are meant to catch these droplets. There are also questions regarding the potential spread of the virus through smaller, aerosolized particles that would make the virus airborne.

Even In A Pandemic, WHO Believes That Public Protests Are Important – NPR – 6/8/2020
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization took time at its daily press conference to address another pressing issue: the wave of protests against police violence and racial injustice.”WHO fully supports equality and the global movement against racism. We reject discrimination of all kinds,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on June 8.

INFLUENCER PERSPECTIVE

Carl T. Bergstrom on Twitter, 6/8/2020: A misleading @CNBC story about a rather unclear @WHO statement is making the rounds today. It seems to suggest that people without symptoms don’t spread COVID19. Does this mean shoppers, students, protesters, etc., don’t need masks/ distancing? No.

Ron Paul Institute on Twitter, 6/9/2020:  Shutdown Hoax? W.H.O. Now Says No Threat From Asymptomatic Carriers! – today on the Liberty Report: 

Ashish K. Jha on Twitter, 6/8/2020:  This from @WHO is getting a lot of attention and creating confusion. I want to quickly share what I understand about this. Bottom line question: Are infected people without symptoms an important cause of spread? My best guess: yes. A thread

Michael Smith on Twitter, 6/9/2020:  @mvankerkhove @WHO Your broken comms on this is doing the world a disservice. News media run headlines: “Asymptomatic spread of coronavirus is ‘very rare,’ WHO says” And people will stop distancing and masking, despite clear evidence of presymptomatic spread. Fix it @WHO #coronavirus #COVID19

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