A Bad Game of Telephone at the World Health Organization

It’s been an axiom of our COVID crisis: The coronavirus is so dangerous and difficult to stop in large part because many who spread it don’t even know they have it. The problem posed by so-called “asymptomatic carriers” has informed our public policy response to the virus at every level. It’s why our leaders decided it was important to isolate the young and healthy as well as the sick and vulnerable. It’s one reason behind universal masking: Surgical masks don’t keep you from getting the virus, but they help keep people who might be infected from spreading it unwittingly to others.

So you can imagine many people’s consternation Monday following a report that a World Health Organization had declared asymptomatic spread of the coronavirus “very rare” at a press conference that morning: “From the data we have,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove declared, “it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual.”

The statement went off like a bomb on social media, with many using it to argue that the aforementioned policy regime had been misguided from the start. Others simply saw it as a bolt of unbelievably good news: “Translation: sending kids back to school does not require millions of test kits,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul.

Unfortunately, the news isn’t quite as good—or, if you prefer, as destructive to the previous public health consensus—as it seems. The primary culprit appears to have been a matter of unclearly defining terms.

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