British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons on Thursday he suspected early in the pandemic that asymptomatic carriers could spread the Wuhan coronavirus, but the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) told him that early reports of asymptomatic spread from China were “likely a mistranslation.”
Hancock said he “bitterly regrets” not challenging W.H.O.’s dismissal of asymptomatic transmission.
“I should have stuck with my guns and said even if it’s uncertain and even if it’s relatively small we should base policy on that,” he said.
According to Hancock, there was a “global scientific consensus” at the beginning of 2020 that only patients with visible symptoms can transmit coronaviruses, including the Chinese coronavirus. He said he suspected the “novel pathogen” spreading out of Wuhan, China, might not play by those rules.
I heard evidence from China that there was asymptomatic transmission in January,” he recalled, adding:
I also remember talking to my German opposite number and they had seen some evidence in Germany. I asked the scientists, and in fact I was so worried about it I raised a call with the World Health Organization. And I was told on that call, that with respect to China this was likely a mistranslation.
Hancock went on to say:
I was in a situation of not having hard evidence that a global scientific consensus of decades was wrong, but having an instinct that it was. And I bitterly regret that I didn’t overrule that scientific advice at the start and say we should proceed on the basis that there is transmission until we know that that isn’t, rather than the other way around. But when you’re faced with a global consensus … it is hard to do that.
Hancock’s remarks on challenging the global scientific consensus during the coronavirus pandemic flew in the face of British government messaging otherwise, which since the earliest days of the coronavirus lockdowns have justified its actions on a basis of “following the science” above political considerations.
Hancock’s parliamentary critics cast some doubt on his testimony, noting the British government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) reported “limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission” on January 28, 2020. It was not immediately clear if the conversation Hancock reported with W.H.O. occurred before or after that date.
Asymptomatic spread is now recognized as a major feature of the coronavirus, as a large percentage of people infected by the disease have no visible symptoms and may be completely unaware they carry it, but they are still contagious.
The World Health Organization’s current guidelines for the Chinese coronavirus, last updated at the end of April 2021, cite laboratory data suggesting “infected people appear to be most infectious just before they develop symptoms (namely 2 days before they develop symptoms) and early in their illness.”
“While someone who never develops symptoms can pass the virus to others, it is still not clear how frequently this occurs and more research is needed in this area,” W.H.O. states.