During a media briefing on Monday, the World Health Organization's (WHO) technical lead for coronavirus response made a comment that has since caused an explosion online. Maria Van Kerkhove was answering a reporter’s question, when she made a comment about the transmissibility of COVID-19 as we understand it.

"We have a number of reports from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing. They're following asymptomatic cases, they're following contacts and they're not finding secondary transmission onward. It is very rare — and much of that is not published in the literature," Van Kerkhove said.

Which is to say, the WHO is waivering on its position yet again. And now, what they’re telling us is that it’s “very rare” to catch the Rona from someone who is not exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. For three months now most of the United States has been in a state of quarantine: friends and family members have avoided one another, parents haven’t seen their children, weddings were cancelled, businesses have been shut down, an entire summer of events has been rescheduled. All because we were told that this disease, which was ravaging places like New York and Los Angeles, killing the elderly and at-risk en masse, could spread from someone who seemed totally healthy, and who was exhibiting no symptoms of COVID-19.

We were told that the disease had a two-week incubation period before symptoms began; during which time any one of us, no matter how healthy we felt or looked, could be a walking biological murder machine, transmitting COVID to everyone we love.

It’s why the response to this pandemic was so dramatic. It’s largely the reason why our lives are so different today than they were four months ago. The fear of a disease which could spread from and between otherwise healthy people, was enough to force everyone inside, to close the economy, socially distance The People, and incorporate face masks into daily life. That fear enabled great change to happen and to happen quickly.

And now we find out, that, actually, it’s rare to transmit COVID-19 when you aren’t showing symptoms of it.


The response to that statement, made only yesterday, has been pretty severe. The internet has erupted with questions, outrage, confusion, and conspiracy. People are arguing, professionals are offering their insight, conservative trolls are out a’trolling, social justice warriors are up in arms and no one has any idea what or WHO to really believe.

A question which, the WHO is only making more confusing. Because, just 24-hours later, they are already trying to revise and redact that statement. They're muddying the water with semantic distinctions between the words "asymptomatic" (having never had any symptoms) and pre-symptomatic (people who are sick but will develop symptoms later). A distinction which the WHO never made when they first informed everyone that we could be carrying this disease no matter how healthy we seemed. 

Now, to be fair, there is no published scientific data to back up this new claim from the WHO spokesperson. Van Kerkhove mentioned that they’d gotten reports from other countries doing detailed contact tracing of asymptomatic cases — but those aren’t studies. It’s only anecdotal reporting. And she did say, that this wasn’t reflected in most of the literature on COVID.

However, the original claim, that the coronavirus did in fact spread between asymptomatic individuals, was also made by the WHO without scientific evidence to support it. That claim was made on exactly the same basis: using anecdotal reports.

So, now we’re watching the WHO walk back a baseless claim by making another baseless claim.

Reddit user Kaiathebluenose, really summed it up: “what a fucking shit show this whole thing has been.”

A shit show indeed. But, this is kind of how science works. COVID-19 is a new disease that we’re learning about, as we learn to live with it. The reason people are making claims without evidence is because we have very little in the way of evidence at all. We’re watching this happen — we’re collecting and trying to organize data. What we think we know about COVID-19 today, is going to change.

Still, this is a really big piece of information for the WHO to try and walk back. People sacrificed their life-styles, their contact with their family, their businesses and their incomes, largely because of the fear of asymptomatic people spreading the disease. Whether or not it was the aim, that fear was a tool used to control every one of us, used to prevent social and political gatherings, to close most of the economy and to forge this New World without consent.

And now, here we are, living in the COVID era. It’s a confusing corner of time and space, to be sure. But, if anything is certain, it’s that the position of the WHO will probably change again, and many more times, before “Victory” is declared over this disease.