Yesterday, I wrote about how the World Health Organization’s (WHO) head of emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, had stated during a press conference that the spread of COVID-19 by asymptomatic people is uncommon and that asymptomatic people aren’t driving the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the beta coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. In fact, she went even beyond that, having said, “From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual. It’s very rare.” The effect was immediate; COVID-19 deniers seized on the story to cast doubt on the need for social distancing and mask wearing.
Unsurprisingly, the after a tsunami of criticism by epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists on social media, the next day, WHO walked back Dr. Van Kerkove’s statement, convening a special news conference to “clarify”:
Calling the controversy “a misunderstanding,” Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging disease and zoonosis unit, said that during the news conference Monday, she was trying to respond to a journalist’s question when she said asymptomatic transmission was “very rare.”
“I wasn’t stating a policy of WHO or anything like that,” she said. “We do know that some people who are asymptomatic, or some people who do not have symptoms, can transmit the virus on.”
It was not the “intent of WHO to say there is a new or different policy,” added Mike Ryan, head of emergency programs for WHO. “There is still too much unknown about this virus and still too much unknown about its transmission dynamics.”
While asymptomatic transmission does occur, no one knows for sure how frequently it happens. Studies and models have suggested many of those infected never show symptoms. And it remains an open question whether they are a large force driving transmission.
Some countries using contact tracing to work backward from confirmed cases have not found many instances of asymptomatic spread, WHO officials noted. At the same time, WHO officials acknowledged on Tuesday some modeling studies have suggested as much as 41 percent of transmission may be due to asymptomatic people.
As I said last time, WHO really needs to up its science communication game. I noted that the same thing happened in January, pre-pandemic, when antivaxxers took advantage of a live stream of 16 hours of video of the WHO Global Vaccine Safety Summit held in December to cherry pick statements to cast doubt on vaccine safety and using them to claim that the WHO had “questioned the safety of vaccines” when it most assuredly had not. No doubt the WHO thought that being completely transparent and streaming all those hours of video would alleviate fears about vaccines, when in reality it just produced fodder for antivaxxers to use to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about vaccines, something those of us who’ve been following the antivaccine movement for a long time could easily have predicted. Indeed, the walkback was so awkward that the satire site The Onion posted an article entitled WHO Walks Back Claim That Covid-19 Can Only Be Transmitted Through Locking Eyes With One True Love.
Let’s just put it this way, when your communication fail inspires The Onion to write a parody news article about it, the fail is epic, and only this will do:
So what went wrong at this press conference? Shannon Palus over at Slate tried to figure it out. First, she notes that there is public confusion over the terms “presymptomatic” and “asymptomatic” (as I differentiated earlier in this post), noting that there’s ample evidence that presymptomatic people readily spread COVID-19 but that it’s not so clear for those who are infected but never show clinical symptoms. She agreed that Dr. Van Kerkhove could have been clearer in her use of terminology, but she also points a finger at CNBC:
The lede of a Monday CNBC story summed up WHO’s initial declaration as “coronavirus patients without symptoms aren’t driving the spread of the virus.” The rest of the article also fails to clearly delineate between asymptomatic spread and presymptomatic spread, even at one point explicitly lumping the two terms together. This confusing article went viral, with an Ohio representative tweeting the link along with “reopen America!”
Jordan was nowhere near alone. Über-quack Mike Adams, for instance, immediately published a post entitled The WHO just obliterated every argument for mandatory vaccines or contact tracing by declaring asymptomatic carriers don’t spread COVID-19. He was basically beside himself with utter glee, writing:
Asymptomatic spread was the entire reason why world authorities demanded lockdowns, social distancing and masks, too. It was also the underlying justification for demanding mandatory vaccinations and contact tracing. After all, if the spread of coronavirus were limited to only those who obviously showed symptoms — and could therefore be easily identified and avoided — there would be no logical need for lockdowns, social distancing, masks, contact tracing or mandatory vaccines, since spreaders of the pandemic could be easily identified and avoided (or isolated with selective stay-at-home orders only for the symptomatic).
All at once, the WHO has just exploded all these narratives that were so aggressively pushed by the CDC, Democrat governors, Dr. Fauci at the White House and even the WHO itself. Now, based on the WHO’s new admission, not only should every lockdown be immediately ended; any government effort to initiate new lockdowns should be vehemently rejected as being utterly groundless and anti-science.
Now that the WHO is claiming there’s virtually no risk of catching the coronavirus from someone who isn’t showing any symptoms, mandatory vaccines are impossible to medically justify since symptomatic carriers can be easily identified and isolated from others.
He also went on to say that everyone can go back to work, with the use of low-cost contactless thermometers to monitor temperatures of workers as they enter work, (never mind that some people never have significant fever even when symptomatic with COVID-19), equating a lack of symptoms with a safe workplace. By the same “logic,” he advocated that all restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms, etc. could be safely immediately reopened at full capacity, as long as “people who sneeze or show fevers must be asked to leave, and that’s it.”
Adams, predictably, also argued that the WHO statement means that contact tracing is useless:
This WHO declaration also obliterates any argument for so-called “contact tracing.” If there’s no such thing as an asymptomatic carrier, why would we need contact tracing at all?
The whole point of contact tracing is to find people who don’t know they have the infection because they were supposedly infected by an asymptomatic carrier. But if the only people who spread the virus are those who show obvious symptoms, then everybody already knows to steer clear of that individual, and contact tracing becomes moot.
Thus, the WHO has just obliterated any argument for contact tracing, too. Will Apple and Google now remove their contact tracing apps from their mobile devices? Of course not. Those apps were never really about contact tracing in the first place… the entire sham was always a pretext for total surveillance and spying on users.
See the harm that the conflation of presymptomatic individuals (asymptomatic individuals who’ve been infected but haven’t developed COVID-19 symptoms yet) with asymptomatic individuals (those infected with COVID-19 who never develop symptoms)? Again, as I wrote yesterday, although it is possible that truly asymptomatic people might not transmit coronavirus as much as symptomatic people, there is abundant evidence that presymptomatic people can transmit coronavirus before they develop symptoms. Even if asymptomatic individuals never transmit coronavirus, contact tracing would still be very useful to slow the spread of the disease if presymptomatic people can transmit the virus before they become symptomatic.
Of course, Mike Adams, being Mike Adams, went deep into tinfoil hat territory in full conspiracy theory mode, asking if this was all a new “psyop to explode a second wave of infections,” his goal being, as is the goal of conspiracy theorists,” to cast doubt on the establishment and on current science and place your trust in his proclamations:
So there are really just two possibilities in all this:
#1) The WHO has been lying to us all along, and the real risk of coronavirus spread is practically zero.
Or #2) The WHO is lying to us now, trying to make sure we all get infected so that a second wave explodes across the globe.
Either way, it looks like the WHO can’t be trusted at all, which makes their recent announcement highly questionable. If the coronavirus can’t be spread by asymptomatic carriers, how did it explode across the Diamond Princess? How did it sneak into the USA and other countries, even as symptom checkers manned the airport arrival terminals? How did the coronavirus explode across nursing homes in New York and other areas, killing a shockingly high number of residents there? (Or, alternatively, perhaps they all really died from death-by-ventilator episodes…)
We can’t really know what to believe from the authorities anymore — not the WHO, the CDC, the FDA or of course the lying lamestream media. So the only thing we can really count on is our own immune systems, and those can be readily enhanced with simple nutritional supplements, along with healthy lifestyle choices such as avoiding inflammatory junk foods and getting plenty of sleep each night.
Unsurprisingly, grifters gonna grift. Always. Not coincidentally, Adams sells a whole line of nutritional supplements and products to help you “naturally boost your immune system.” It never occurs to him how utterly ridiculous #2 is, that the WHO would want to spark a second wave that could kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, but it is of a piece with the conspiracy theories about Bill Gates that claim he wants to “depopulate” the planet using toxic vaccines.
His grift aside, Adams and Jordan was not the only ones, either. Far from it! All over Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, I soon saw COVID-19 deniers posting the MSNBC article that originally quoted Van Kerkhove in refutation to statements lamenting how many people are no longer social distancing or wearing masks, as if to say, “Ha ha, you suckers!” It was so bad that it led me to quip how it amused the hell out of me how many people who had been spreading conspiracy theories about the WHO and castigating it as a dupe and shill for China that’s not to be trusted had come around so suddenly to citing the organization as a font of scientific truth about COVID-19.
In the end, Palus says basically the same thing I wrote yesterday:
We know less about how asymptomatic people spread the disease. When Van Kerkhove said such transmission is “very rare,” she was apparently referring to “a small subset of studies” that look at data from contact tracing, as CNBC clarified in a follow-up story. She was not referring to models that estimates how much asymptomatic spread could be occurring. This distinction matters because contact tracing and data on asymptomatic patients is indeed lacking even though some models estimate that asymptomatic carriers may be responsible for 40 percent of transmission. (As of this writing, that story clarifying that asymptomatic patients spread the virus sits below the initial CNBC story about asymptomatic patients rarely spreading the virus in the site’s “trending now” list.)
She could have spelled this out much more clearly, yes. But another problem here is that her original remarks were quickly taken out of context. She was not telling people to rush out to the bars because they don’t have to worry about asymptomatic spread. She was making a point about where she thought large-scale efforts to find and isolate people should be focused. In any case, what she was describing “seems more of scientific than practical interest,” biostatistician Natalie Dean noted on Twitter. On an individual level, we shouldn’t change our behavior.
I’ve been saying the same thing about antivaxxers, quacks, and other science denialists for many years: Yes, they will try to distort anything you try to say in order to twist it to fit into their conspiracy theories. They do it all the time, and they are very good at it. That’s why science communicators need to know the techniques of disinformation, so that they know how not to make it so damned easy for cranks like COVID-19 deniers to succeed in doing that. You can be very sure that Dr. Van Kerkhove’s first statements about how asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 is “very rare” will live on in conspiracy theory social media, without a mention of how the WHO walked back that statement and tried to explain that the whole thing was a misunderstanding, much as testimonials of patients who treated their cancers with quackery live on with nary a mention that they ultimately died of their disease. There was a misunderstanding here, a misunderstanding of the nature of denialists, conspiracy theorists, and science communication.