WHO comments on asymptomatic COVID-19 transmission is lesson in research and context

A World Health Organization official first said it’s “very rare” for someone without symptoms to pass on COVID-19. Then they walked it back.

June 11, 2020
Category: Fact-Checking

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It was almost on cue. On Monday, World Health Organization COVID-19 technical lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said transmission of the coronavirus from those who don’t have symptoms is “very rare.” Not long after, podcaster Graham Allen shared a video on Facebook with the following caption:

“WHO says: Asymptomatic spread of Virus is “VERY RARE”?!?!?

“Translation:

“EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO SHAMED OR “CANCELED” PEOPLE FOR OPENING THEIR BUSINESS TO FEED THEIR FAMILIES OWES AMERICANS AN APOLOGY!!

“I guess the “cure” was protesting?!”

The post drew more than 92,000 reactions and was seen more than 3.3 million times. It was just as Poynter senior faculty member Al Tompkins predicted yesterday when he wrote that “this will light new fires among people who believe the entire COVID-19 pandemic has been overblown and that there was no need for stay-at-home orders that keep seemingly healthy people at home.”

But, one day after the initial statement from Van Kerkhove, the WHO official walked back her words in a question-and-answer session.

“I think that’s a misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare,” she said. “What I was referring to was a subset of studies; I also referred to data that isn’t published.”

The bottom line: There’s too much uncertainty out there to confidently say that asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 isn’t a problem. And, this is a lesson in understanding how to put new research into context.

“We’re six months into a pandemic,”  Van Kerkhove said. “There’s a huge amount of research that is being done, but we don’t have that full picture yet.”

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Alex Mahadevan is a senior multimedia reporter at MediaWise. He can be reached at amahadevan@poynter.org or on Twitter at @AlexMahadevan. Follow MediaWise on TikTok.