Coronavirus: WHO backtracks on comment about ‘asymptomatic transmission’ of COVID-19, sparks debate on Twitter

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The World Health Organisation’s comments on asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 created confusion, and sparked a debate on Twitter today. On Tuesday night, the world body backtracked on their earlier claim that asymptomatic transmission is “very rare”, saying their comment was “misunderstood”.

Many people have taken to Twitter to call out the World Health Organisation for creating confusion at such a time, when countries were relying on their information to make important decisions.

Tweep @Kevin__Parent posted: “The WHO on Monday: Asymptomatic transmission is rare. The WHO on Tuesday: By “rare”, we mean as much as 40%.”

It all started on Monday, when the World Health Organization discussed the current understanding of asymptomatic transmission at a press conference. “Asymptomatic” refers to people who are infected by the novel coronavirus but never develop any symptoms.

During the conference, Maria Van Kerkhove, head of WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit had said: “From the data we have it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic actually transmits onward to a secondary individual.”

Subsequently, global news outlets reported this comment, followed by a flurry of frustrations and confusion over social media.

Dr. Eric Topol, a scientist at Scripps Research tweeted: “The @WHO has engendered considerable confusion today (WITHOUT DATA) about people without symptoms not transmitting. #SARSCoV2”

And, Twitter user @Vicster82 posted: “Huge ramifications for the entire premise of social distancing if there is no evidence of asymptomatic transmission between carriers.”

To clarify the confusion, on Tuesday, WHO held a social media ‘Q+A’ session, during which, Van Kerkhove said: “I was responding to a question at the press conference. I wasn’t stating a policy of WHO or anything like that. I think that’s a misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare.”

Van Kerkhove said that her previous comment had been misunderstood, since she was referring only to certain studies on the spread of COVID-19, involving contact tracing. what she meant to convey is that she has not seen evidence indicating that transmission from asymptomatic individuals is widespread. “What we need to better understand is, how many of the people in the population don’t have symptoms? And separately, how many of those individuals go on to transmit to others?”

The WHO also went on to clarify: “Asymptomatic: people who are infected but never go on to develop symptoms; Pre-symptomatic: people who are infected but have not yet developed symptoms; Symptomatic: people who are infected and showing symptoms.”

As the WHO backtracked on the earlier comment, many took to social media to react.

Tweep @HSS5791 posted: “Why create chaos in the time of a pandemic, such errors can be fatal. Information coming out of WHO should be most accurate and verified as many countries are taking decisions basis this info.”

“Absurd. It’s not misunderstanding but misrepresentation,” tweeted @BagaiDr.

Telling people to continue maintaining practices such as wearing masks, tweep @deonandan posted: “This is the dangerous misinformation that results from unclear WHO communication. Let’s be clear: Much of #COVID19 transmission is done by people before they show symptoms (i.e. pre-symptomatic, not asymptomatic). Do not let down your guard, people!”

And, @mattindctweets highlighted, that public health agencies should also share updates for awareness: “Amid the new WHO guidance related to #COVID19, public health agencies and leaders should clarify the difference between pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic. It’s very easy for the public to get confused when one term is not distinguished from another.”

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