WHO director addresses asymptomatic coronavirus miscommunication: ‘We are all learning all the time’

During a Wednesday briefing, the World Health Organization top official addressed a miscommunication that originated when a colleague made a comment about asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus.

On Monday, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO infectious disease epidemiologist, said that the spread of coronavirus by people not showing symptoms "appears to be rare.” The following day, she tried to clarify “misunderstandings” over her comments, which provoked a flurry of frustrations and confusion over social media.

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At the Wednesday media briefing, which was streamed through Facebook Live, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “since early February, we have said that asymptomatic people can transmit COVID-19, but we need more research to establish the extent of asymptomatic transmission.”

Tedros said the research is ongoing, adding, “we are all learning all the time.”

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 photo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), addresses a press conference about the update on COVID-19 at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP, File)

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 photo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), addresses a press conference about the update on COVID-19 at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP, File)

Tedros said communicating about a new virus isn’t easy, “but it is our duty.”

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“We welcome constructive debate,” he said.

While Kerkhove made her comments on Monday based on a small subset of studies (two or three), her later clarification included how some modeling groups estimate about 40 percent of virus transmission may be due to asymptomatic people.