WHO Said Asymptomatic COVID-19 Spread Is 'Rare.' These Doctors Disagree.

Melissa Matthews
Photo credit: Sisoje - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sisoje - Getty Images

From Men's Health

Yesterday, the World Health Organization announced that it's "rare" for COVID-19 to be spread by people who don't have symptoms of the disease. Now, doctors warn the announcement isn't the good news you probably think it is.

During a media briefing on Monday, the WHO said current data shows that asymptomatic people do not have a big role in transmitting the disease. This has spurred doctors to speak out in fear that people may think the coronavirus can only be passed if you're extremely sick, leading some to avoid taking precautions against spreading or contracting it.

Emergency medicine physician John Torres, M.D. and NBC Medical Correspondent, explained what the findings really mean on the Today show.

People who are asymptomatic—meaning they never experience any symptoms at all—didn't spread it as much as people with symptoms do, he said. However, the majority of people with COVID-19 end up getting some symptoms, like a cough or runny nose, and these people can spread the disease, says Torres. Some people who contract COVID-19 spread the disease when they're pre-symptomatic, meaning they haven't experienced symptoms yet, or when they have very mild symptoms like a cough or runny nose that appear to be allergies.

"This is a big kerfuffle for the World Health Organization," Dr. Torres told Today.

Jay Wolfson, public health professor at the University of South Florida explained the WHO presented mostly anecdotal information and that more research is needed.

"I was a little bit surprised by that announcement," Wolfson told WTSP.

"Not only is it a premature statement, but it's letting people put their guards down. Let's be careful," he says.

A number of doctors also expressed their concern about the announcement via Twitter.

Jeremy Faust, M.D., an emergency physician at Harvard Medical School, had this to say in a Tweet: "The correct conclusion is NOT that the WHO has evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not commonly spread asymptomatically. That’s possibly rather wrong. The correct interpretation is more likely that CONTACT TRACING is woefully inadequate at finding asymptomatic spread. That’s different."

"Asymptomatic spread, in my opinion, is the reason WHY we have a pandemic," Dr. Faust claimed in another Tweet.

Eric Topol, M.D., a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, told the Washington Post that the statement only created more confusion for the public.

“It’s a mess. I don’t know why they would say asymptomatic transmission is very rare when the truth is we simply don’t know how frequent it is,” Dr. Topol told the Washington Post. “And it doesn’t change the facts we do know, which is that this virus is very transmissible and is very hard to combat.”

Today, WHO said that the statement was a misunderstanding, Washington Post reported.

"There is still too much unknown about this virus and still too much unknown about its transmission dynamics,” Mike Ryan, head of emergency programs for WHO, explained in a news conference.

Bottom line: It's still not completely clear how much of a role asymptomatic transmission plays in the spread of COVID-19. So it's important to still be cautious. That means everybody should still keep their face masks on and social distance, says Dr. Torres.

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