WHO says ‘we can always do better’ following confusing comments on asymptomatic transmission

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Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference on the situation of the coronavirus (COVID-2019), in Geneva, Switzerland, February 28, 2020.

Denis Balibouse | Reuters

The World Health Organization’s top official said Wednesday the agency “could always do better” following confusing comments made Monday about asymptomatic transmission of the coronavirus.

Covid-19 is a new virus and the WHO is learning all the time, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press conference at the agency’s Geneva headquarters.

“Communicating complex science in real-time about a new virus is not always easy, but we believe it’s part of our duty to the world and we can always do better,” he said. “We welcome constructive debate and that’s how science advances. WHO advice will continue to evolve as new information becomes available.”

The WHO drew criticism from the scientific community and others across social media Monday after one of its top scientists said the asymptomatic spread of the coronavirus was ‘very rare.”

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, walked back those comments Tuesday, saying, it was a “misunderstanding” and “we don’t actually have that answer yet.”

“I was responding to a question at the press conference. I wasn’t stating a policy of WHO or anything like that. I was just trying to articulate what we know,” she said on a live Q&A streamed across multiple social media platforms. “And in that, I used the phrase ‘very rare,’ and I think that that’s a misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare. I was referring to a small subset of studies.”

An asymptomatic person is someone infected with Covid-19 who never develops symptoms. It’s not the same as a pre-symptomatic patient, who later goes on to develop symptoms. Studies have shown that people can spread the virus in the pre-symptomatic stage as well, generally one to a few days before symptoms start.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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