This article was updated on September 22, 2020.
The evidence is clear: people without symptoms can transmit coronavirus. New evidence has shown that even asymptomatic children can pass COVID-19 on to others. Contact tracing in Utah has shown that 12 children spread the virus to at least 12 people outside of their childcare facility.
According to the WHO’s website, “Infected people can transmit the virus both when they have symptoms and when they don’t have symptoms.”
WHO sparks controversy
In June, a representative from the World Health Organization made a statement that shook the world saying that people who are asymptomatic do not transmit coronavirus.
During a World Health Organization news conference on June 8, Maria Van Kerhove said, “From the data we have it still seems rare that an asymptomatic actually transmits onward to a secondary individual.”
The day after making the statement, Van Kerhove clarified her comments, stating “I was responding to a question at the press conference. I wasn’t stating a policy of WHO or anything like that. I think that’s a misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare.”
She went on to say, “We do know that some people who are asymptomatic can transmit the virus on. What we need to better understand is how many people in the population don’t have symptoms. And, separately, how many of those individuals go on to transmit [the virus] to others.”
CDC changes guidelines, then changes them back
On August 24, upon recommendations from the Trump administration, the CDC decided to change its guidelines stating that people without symptoms do not need to be tested. Then, last week they changed them back after pressure from health experts. The current guidelines state that anyone exposed to an infected person for more than 15 minutes needs a test.
The confusion has led to many older Americans not knowing how to react, with many not wearing masks nor taking the proper precautions. Additionally, testing sites may be turning people away, and insurance companies may be denying test coverage to people who aren’t showing symptoms. Not to mention, trust in the CDC has plummeted.
Spectrum of symptoms
Being asymptomatic means never displaying any symptoms or feeling sick. But there are also people who show a few symptoms, such as feeling sick or sniffly for a day or two and then recovering. So, there is a spectrum along which symptoms lie.
Experts are still not sure when one is most apt to transmit the virus. Some studies suggest that pre-symptomatic people are more likely to transmit COVID-19, and that a person is the most contagious right at the beginning of developing symptoms.
Anywhere between 6 percent and 41 percent of the population may never have COVID-19 symptoms despite being infected with the virus. These asymptomatic cases are more common in younger, healthier people.
A review paper from Scripps Research found that asymptomatic cases could cause 30 to 45 percent of the transmission of the virus. But it is hard to get definitive results on this since many who are asymptomatic are not reporting or don’t have any reason to know that they would have the virus.