Coronavirus study claiming possible transmission without any symptoms of infection found flawed

Just because the paper doesn't prove transmission without symptoms is possible, doesn't mean it can't happen.


On 30 January 2020, a group of doctors at the University of Munich argued in a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NJEM), that the fast-spreading, deadly novel coronavirus could be "transmitted by people without symptoms."

The study has since been discredited by a branch of the German federal health ministry, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), citing "major flaws" in their arguments. The main criticism by RKI researchers is that a Chinese woman believed to have unknowingly brought the virus to Germany on a visit, had "no signs or symptoms of infection" while transmitting the infection.

RKI called the German study "highly-misleading", according to a DW report.

 Coronavirus study claiming possible transmission without any symptoms of infection found flawed

The main plan of action to contain the spread of coronavirus is currently speedy testing and quarantine. Image credit: AP

LMU didn't speak to the woman who brought the virus to Germany before sharing their findings. Instead, they purely went by information they took from the four other patients interviewed.

"They told us that the patient from China did not appear to have any symptoms," Michael Hoelscher from LMU's Munich Medical Center told Science. "If I was writing this today, I would phrase that differently."

News outlets in China reported that scientists not associated with the LMU group of doctors, too, shared a similar opinion — that infected individuals without any symptoms could be contagious. That said, there still isn't any evidence to support the claim — something the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Public Health Agency of Sweden, too, clarified.

The researchers did offer explanations for why they jumped the gun and published the report knowing it needed more clarification.

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

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. Image credit: AP

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. Image credit: AP

Just because the paper doesn't prove transmission without symptoms is possible, doesn't mean it can't happen. Some researchers in the German team of doctors, in fact, still believe it does.

Even so, asymptomatic transmission isn't something that plays a big hand in the overall epidemic, according to WHO. What's worrisome is direct transmission from an infected to health person through cough or sneeze droplets. The viral outbreak, which began in the city of Wuhan in China, has killed 565 people and infected at least 28,000 more.

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