WHO expert hits out at year-long stream of personal attacks over COVID comment

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·3-min read
Technical Lead for the World Health Organization (WHO) Maria Van Kerkhove attends a news conference on the situation of the coronavirus (COVID-2019), in Geneva, Switzerland, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
'Enough with personal attacks': Dr Maria Van Kerkhove. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

A top World Health Organization (WHO) official has hit out after receiving a barrage of "personal attacks" over a statement she made about coronavirus transmission a year ago.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove was criticised after wrongly saying in 2020 that asymptomatic coronavirus transmission is “rare”.

Speaking out on Thursday, Dr Van Kerkhove said she has had "enough".

The WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, she has been one of the faces of the organisation's response to the pandemic, appearing at its regular press conferences throughout the crisis.

In one briefing on 8 June last year, she said “it still appears to be rare that an asymptomatic individual actually transmits onward”.

About a third of coronavirus cases are thought to be asymptomatic – and this has been one of the major difficulties governments across the world have faced in tackling outbreaks, because people without symptoms do not know they could be spreading the virus.

Dr Van Kerkhove’s comment was widely reported across the world, with Professor Liam Smeeth, a clinical epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, expressing "surprise" at the time.

Dr Van Kerkhove then backtracked the following day, saying her comment was based on "two or three studies".

World Health Organization's technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, Maria van Kerkhove gestures during an interview with AFP in Geneva on October 13, 2020. (Photo by Richard Juilliart / AFP) (Photo by RICHARD JUILLIART/AFP via Getty Images)
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove (Richard Juilliart/AFP via Getty Images)

Ten months on, however, she said she continues to receive “personal attacks” on social media. On Thursday, she wrote on Twitter:

“Enough with personal attacks. I can take a lot, but it’s enough.

“I am a scientist. In my work, we work with 1000s, we follow the whole of science. We update regularly.

“Stop retweeting 1 old tweet, 1 answer from >1yr ago. Listen to my statements, read our updated guidance.”

Dr Van Kerkhove is not the only high-profile figure to have made mistakes in the discussion surrounding asymptomatic transmission.

Watch: Boris Johnson on regrets over asymptomatic COVID transmission 'false assumption'

In the UK, Boris Johnson has previously admitted his government under-estimated the potential for asymptomatic transmission of the virus at the beginning of the outbreak in spring last year.

He said at a Downing Street press conference last month: "The single biggest false assumption that we made was about the potential for asymptomatic transmission and that did govern a lot of policy in the early days, or that misunderstanding about the reality of asymptomatic transmission certainly led to real problems that we then had to work very, very hard to make up ground.”

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Earlier this month, the government began offering free rapid coronavirus tests, which can be done at home, to everyone in England. A key reason for this is to identify cases without symptoms.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said of the scheme's launch: "Around one in three people who have COVID-19 show no symptoms, and as we reopen society and resume parts of life we have all dearly missed, regular rapid testing is going to be fundamental in helping us quickly spot positive cases and squash any outbreaks."

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