Study claiming asymptomatic people with COV can spread it was WRONG

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A paper published on 30 January in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) about the first four people in Germany infected with a novel coronavirus made many headlines. It appeared to confirm what public health experts feared — someone who has no symptoms from infection with the virus, named 2019-nCoV, can still transmit it to others, Science Mag reports.

The Chinese thought it could be the case.

That information was wrong.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German government’s public health agency, has written a letter to NEJM to set the record straight, even though it was not involved in the paper.

The original researchers never spoke to the asymptomatic subject who was the basis of the conclusion — the one who was asymptomatic and allegedly spread it. They got their information second-hand and third-hand. When researchers at RKI spoke to the businesswoman from Shanghai [who appeared to spread the virus when she didn’t have symptoms], they found out she DID have symptoms.

A letter was sent to NEJM and the World Health Organization as well as the European partner agencies with the new critically important information.

“I feel bad about how this went, but I don’t think anybody is at fault here,” says virologist Christian Drosten of the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, who did the lab work for the study and is one of its authors. “Apparently the woman could not be reached at first and people felt this had to be communicated quickly.”

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says calling a case asymptomatic without talking to the person is problematic. “In retrospect, it sounds like this was a poor choice,” he says. However, “In an emergency setting, it’s often not possible to talk to all the people,” he adds. “I’m assuming that this was an overstretched group trying to get out their best idea of what the truth was quickly rather than somebody trying to be careless.”

The Public Health Agency of Sweden reacted less charitably. “The sources that claimed that the coronavirus would infect during the incubation period lack scientific support for this analysis in their articles,” says a document with frequently asked questions the agency posted on its website yesterday. “This applies, among other things, to an article in [NEJM] that has subsequently proven to contain major flaws and errors.” Even if the patient’s symptoms were unspecific, it wasn’t an asymptomatic infection, says Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto. “Asymptomatic means no symptoms, zero. It means you feel fine. We have to be careful with our words.”

Hoelscher agrees that the paper should have been clearer about the origin of the information about the woman’s health. “If I was writing this today, I would phrase that differently,” he says.

All of these reactions are very PC. The original researchers screwed up badly, terrifying the world and promoting the now-Draconian lockdowns that were likely unnecessary. One size does not fit all under these circumstances.


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