A top World Health Organization (WHO) official called the spread of COVID-19 by people without symptoms a “very rare” occurrence, sparking confusion about why we’ve all been wearing masks and staying indoors.
During a media briefing on Monday, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, told reporters that “it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual,” referring to data collected from contact tracing efforts.
Less than 24 hours later, she clarified those statements during a Q & A online, chalking it up to a “misunderstanding” while answering a question, but as the technical lead for WHO’s COVID-19 response says she was not speaking about WHO policy.
But the ripple effects of her initial comments already had public health specialists perplexed. For months, scientists have said that even people without obvious symptoms can transmit the virus, and that these asymptomatic people carrying the disease are potentially part of the global pandemic.
Van Kerkhove’s comments came as a surprise to infectious disease experts interviewed by ABC News, who said it’s clear that asymptomatic transmission is responsible for at least some portion of new infections.
“There is, unequivocally, asymptomatic spread,” Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the Los Angeles Public Health Director, told ABC news. “I don’t want anyone to get confused that people who are asymptomatic may not be capable of spreading. They are, in fact, capable of spreading and we all need to keep that in mind.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reminding the public that asymptomatic spread is a reason social distancing and masks are so important even among people who feel healthy.
When Van Kerkhove clarified her comments on Tuesday, she said that she had intended to emphasize the importance of isolating symptomatic people and to encourage people they’ve been in contact with to isolate as well as a way to slow down the spread of the virus.