From the faltering early response to the confused and contradictory messaging, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been fumbling in its role as the global leader in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The alleged soft approach towards China and the delayed warnings about the spread of the virus have only made matters worse and hampered the coordinated global efforts, prompting the United States to threaten to exit from the UN health body and to terminate the funding. The WHO has been found wanting in terms of taking stock of the rapidly evolving research findings on the coronavirus and communicating clearly about them. The latest flip-flop was about the transmission of the virus by asymptomatic persons. The global agency’s technical lead on Covid-19 pandemic Maria Van Kerkhove initially claimed that the spread of the virus by people without symptoms is “very rare” but had to backtrack following a concerted pushback from researchers. Countries across the globe have been wary of relaxing lockdown guidelines, fearing that asymptomatic people could spread the Covid-19 pathogen unchecked. Since identifying asymptomatic cases is extremely difficult, nations have struggled to implement adequate testing to gauge how widespread the disease has become. The WHO has created confusion by making an unsubstantiated claim that asymptomatic patients rarely spread the disease. In fact, studies have estimated that people without symptoms could be responsible for up to half of the spread. People not showing symptoms can spread the virus, whether they ultimately feel sick or not. That’s why wearing masks and keeping distance are so important in limiting transmission.
Determining which routes of transmission are driving most of the spread of the virus is crucial to devise right strategies to combat the virus. This is not the first time the WHO’s assessment seemed to lag behind scientific opinion. The global agency has repeatedly said that small airborne droplets, or aerosols, are not a significant factor in the pandemic’s spread, although a growing body of evidence suggests otherwise. It also delayed endorsing masks for the general public, claiming there was too little evidence that they prevented transmission of the virus. Virtually all scientists and governments have been recommending masks for months. Traditionally, the WHO has taken a cautious approach to evaluate scientific evidence. In February, the WHO-China Joint Mission reported that the “proportion of truly asymptomatic infections is relatively rare and does not appear to be a major driver of transmission.” However, studies later estimated this number could be as high as 40%. There is a need for the WHO to be more transparent about its sources because it is supposed to lead the global response to health crises with the best scientific data and evidence.
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