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The World Health Organization (WHO) has walked back its claims that it is uncommon for aysymptomatic coronavirus patients to spread the virus after Harvard University scientists criticized the agency for creating confusion.

On Monday, the UN health agency said it had doubts that the virus was difficult contain due to people without signs such as fever, cough or shortness of breath. 

WHO officials said that symptomatic spread can occur, but it isn’t the main avenue by which the disease is being transmitted.

‘From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual,’ Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, head of WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, said at a news conference.  

‘It’s very rare.’

But researchers from Harvard say that a multitude of evidence suggests those without symptoms can, and easily do, spread coronavirus.

Later on Monday, the WHO called the statement a ‘misunderstanding,’ and admitted that people with no symptoms do, in fact, spread the disease. 

On Monday, the WHO said it's very rare that asymptomatic people spread coronavirus and that they are not a 'main driver' of new infection. Pictured: Dr Maria Van Kerkhove during a press conference, June 8

On Monday, the WHO said it's very rare that asymptomatic people spread coronavirus and that they are not a 'main driver' of new infection. Pictured: Dr Maria Van Kerkhove during a press conference, June 8

On Monday, the WHO said it’s very rare that asymptomatic people spread coronavirus and that they are not a ‘main driver’ of new infection. Pictured: Dr Maria Van Kerkhove during a press conference, June 8 

Harvard's Global Health institute says the WHO 'created confusion' with its statement that those without symptoms are not readily spreading the virus. Pictured: Mourners arrive for a public visitation for George Floyd at the Fountain of Praise church in Houston, Texas, June 8

Harvard's Global Health institute says the WHO 'created confusion' with its statement that those without symptoms are not readily spreading the virus. Pictured: Mourners arrive for a public visitation for George Floyd at the Fountain of Praise church in Houston, Texas, June 8

Harvard’s Global Health institute says the WHO ‘created confusion’ with its statement that those without symptoms are not readily spreading the virus. Pictured: Mourners arrive for a public visitation for George Floyd at the Fountain of Praise church in Houston, Texas, June 8

During the news briefing, Van Kerkhove said the WHO had doubts about asymptomatic spread after reports came in from contact tracers.

‘We have a number of reports from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing,’ she said. 

‘They’re following asymptomatic cases. They’re following contacts. And they’re not finding secondary transmission onward. It’s very rare.’ 

If asymptomatic spread is not one of the main ways coronavirus is spreading, this could make people question why people are socially distancing and wearing masks. 

However, Harvard’s Global Health Institute said research shows people without COVID-19 symptoms are spreading the disease and that ‘the WHO is creating confusion by suggesting otherwise.’

According to the group, the WHO’s comment was based on ‘evidence from member states’ that has not yet been shared with the scientific community.

‘Obviously the issue about whether or not can spread symptoms is critical to controlling this,’  Dr Ashish K Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told DailyMail.com.

‘It’s been the Achilles heel of this outbreak. The threat of asymptomatic spread, it’s real and substantial.’   

Jha said that about one in five people who contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, never develop symptoms

‘They feel fine throughout the disease course. That’s where we think are right now,’ he said.

‘I would say there’s good evidence that people who are infected, who have no symptoms and feel fine, can and do spread the infection.’  

It echoes similar comments made by director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr Robert Redfield, back in April.

At the time, he said this explained how cases continued to spread across the country even as strict social distancing measures were enacted.     

In fact, Redfield said asymptomatic people can shed the virus up to 48 hours before any symptoms appear. 

It echoes similar comments made by director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr Robert Redfield, back in April.

At the time, he said this explained how cases continued to spread across the country even as strict social distancing measures were enacted.     

In fact, Redfield said asymptomatic people can shed the virus up to 48 hours before any symptoms appear. 

Jha said people need to continue to follow safety precautions recommended by health agencies and medical professionals.  

‘We need to continue to wear masks, socially distancing and wash hands,’ he said. 

‘If the WHO has data, they need to share it and explain why this should change, but I really don’t think they do or they will.

‘I expect a much more explicit walking back of their comments over the next 24 hours.’

And precisely, the WHO did just that on Tuesday saying that the comments were simply a ‘misunderstanding.’  

Van Kerkhove, who made the original comment, said it was based on two or three studies and that she does not think asymptomatic transmission is rare.

‘I was just responding to a question, I wasn’t stating a policy of W.H.O. or anything like that,’ she said.  

Van Kerkhove said that studies show about 16 percent of the population may be asymptomatic, but later clarified that other models suggest up to 40 percent of global transmission may be due to asymptomatic people.

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