Thanks in part to a massive investment in research by the British government, a lot of interesting data has come out of the UK, including a study which supposedly found evidence that immunity to COVID ‘degrades’ in the months after infection. Now, other studies have come to seemingly contradictory conclusions. It’s just another reminder how fraught and complicated the process of study and research can be during an unprecedented pandemic.
It should also be a reminder, particularly as all the world’s top COVID-vaccine manufacturers reassure the public that their vaccines will work against the more infectious mutated strains allegedly discovered in the UK and South Africa, among other places, that the leading scientific and public health authorities aren’t always 100% certain when it comes to – as they like to call it – “the science”.
And in yet another reminder of this principle, the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network Open journal has published new research from a government-backed study that appears to offer new evidence that asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 may be significantly lower than previously thought.
Some members of the public might remember all the way back in February and January when public officials first speculated that mass mask-wearing might not be that helpful unless individuals were actually sick. They famously back-tracked on that, and – for that, and other reasons – decided that we should all wear masks, and that lockdowns were more or less the best solution to the problem, even as millions of Americans continued to flout the new “rules” daily.
But for those who don’t, this paper makes one thing clear: For all the talk in the press about asymptomatic people being infectious, which included a heavy-handed rebuke of a WHO scientist who nonchalantly said a few months back that asymptomatic people don’t spread the virus as effectively, there haven’t been many large-sample-size longer-term studies that study how “asymptomatic” patients actually spread the virus vs. how “symptomatic” patients do, since most public health agencies don’t even collect data on whether people who test positive are asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic, or symptomatic (a specification which, as most people probably know by now, can vary widely).
Since the pandemic has only been ongoing for less than a year now, researchers have instead tried conducting “meta studies” – that is, comparing data collected in dozens of studies examining some aspect of the virus’s functionality. In the paper noted above which examined 54 separate studies with nearly 78K total participants, the authors claim that “The lack of substantial transmission from observed asymptomatic index cases is notable…These findings are consistent with other household studies reporting asymptomatic index cases as having limited role in household transmission.”
This is of course not the first time we have heard this. Aside from the WHO scientist example cited above, two British scientists recently published an editorial in the BMJ imploring scientists to rethink how the virus spreads “asymptomatically”.
They pointed to “the absence of strong evidence that asymptomatic people are a driver of transmission” as a reason to question such practices as “mass testing in schools, universities, and communities.”
That’s not to say that asymptomatic people can’t spread the virus, it’s just to say that maybe there is a significant difference in risk levels in terms of exposure. Of course, public health officials at this point seem to be afraid to acknowledge anything that questions the notion that everybody is potentially a threat. To be clear, the WHO’s current guidance on the issue is that “while someone who never develops symptoms can also pass the virus to others, it is still not clear to what extent this occurs, and more research is needed in this area” – but at this point, they have changed their guidance and flip-flopped so many times, who even knows, understands or cares what they say?
Anyway, it’s just some more food for thought next time somebody tries to lecture you about “the science”.