WHO ‘imperfect but important’ as coronavirus controversies batter agency

People who don’t physically exhibit COVID-19 symptoms “are not drivers” of the pandemic, though they can still spread the disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci told Yahoo Finance in an interview, in which he expressed support for the embattled World Health Organization.

On Monday, the WHO sparked a global public health debate when a top official said that asymptomatic people are less likely to transmit the coronavirus.

“From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual,” said Maria Von Kherkove, the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic. Since then, the WHO has both defended and walked back the statement, saying it was largely based on member states’ data, and a “small subset” of studies.

According to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, between 25% and 40% are asymptomatic. However, what percent of those are transmitting the virus is still unknown, Fauci told Yahoo Finance.

“Although there are asymptomatic infections…they are not the drivers of the outbreak. The drivers of the outbreak are people who are symptomatic and transmit to others,” he said. “That’s what the WHO meant.”

There are over 7 million coronavirus cases worldwide. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

‘Imperfect but important’

Kherkove moved quickly to defuse the furor. In a live streamed clarification Tuesday, she called her remarks a “misunderstanding…What I was referring to was a subset of studies. I would also refer to some data that isn’t published, and this is information we received from our member states.”

However, Tuesday’s retreat wasn’t the first time the agency has had to walk back a statement during the global pandemic, which has now affected more than 7.1 million and killed more than 407,000.

Recently, President Donald Trump revoked funding for the WHO as part of a wide-ranging critique of how its handled the COVID-19 crisis. Questions about the agency’s perceived closeness to China spurred Trump to withhold more than $400 million in funding.

The WHO has said it “regrets the decision” of the U.S. to withdraw, and has vowed to get to the bottom of missteps in the crisis.

For his part, Fauci described the agency as “an imperfect organization but it’s an important organization.” He added that he has dealt with them over many years and many outbreaks — some characterized by mistakes and missteps. Yet the relationship between the agency and the global community has endured.

“We have a weekly conference call where they bring together all of the different countries who talk and update us,” Fauci said.

Anjalee Khemlani is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @AnjKhem

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