The World Health Organization just can’t stay away from controversy

( One day after proclaiming that it’s “very rare” for asymptomatic people to spread coronavirus, the organization backtracked to clarify their comments. On Tuesday, WHO’s technical lead for the coronavirus, Maria Van Kerkhove, clarified those statements during a Facebook Live video session, saying there were “misunderstandings” about what they had released.

In an almost complete about-face, Van Kerkhove said that not only is there still a lot of unknowns about how coronavirus is spread, some models actually find it not rare at all for asymptomatic people to spread it. Van Kerkhove admitted that asymptomatic people can indeed spread the virus, but it’s just not known how common that really is. She said:

“We do know that some people who are asymptomatic or some people who don’t have symptoms can transmit the virus on.”

She even went as far as to say that using the phrase “very rare” to describe how common it is for asymptomatic people to spread coronavirus was probably the wrong choice of words. She relied on “two or three studies” and unpublished reports to make those comments on behalf of the WHO on Monday.

She continued:

“In that I used the phrase ‘very rare,’ and I think that’s misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare. What I was referring to is a subset of studies.

“Some estimates of around 40% of transmission may be due to asymptomatic, but those are from models, and so I didn’t include that in my answer yesterday but wanted to make sure that I covered that here.”

Most people would consider 40% of cases to be quite far from being considered “very rare.”

Following the WHO’s original statement on Monday, many people around the world reacted negatively. Many public health experts wondered aloud on social media if the WHO was giving the public the wrong impression of the dangers of the spread of the coronavirus.

At a time when much of the world is just starting to re-open and relax coronavirus-related restrictions, it’s extremely important that the right information is getting out from the leading organizations in the world. Misinformation like what the WHO released Monday is irresponsible and can have deadly consequences.

If people were to take the “very rare” classification to heart, then they would be more likely to not practice social distancing and not wear masks when around people from outside their household, for example. If they’re not showing signs and symptoms of coronavirus, after all, what would the risk be if the WHO is saying it’s unlikely to spread it that way?

The senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, Jeremy Konyndyk, wanted to make sure everyone knew the dangers, saying:

“People who are not showing symptoms can still spread the disease; it’s just that they’re likely pre-symptomatic rather than truly asymptomatic. Keep wearing those masks. Keep distancing.”

And as Andy Slavitt, who was a top health official of the Obama administration, tweeted:

“This is such a mistake that I’m not sure how or if WHO pronouncements can be covered now.”