Asymptomatic transmission makes us all guilty and unfree

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

In terms of personal liberty asymptomatic transmission is one of the most dangerous notions of the pandemic because, unless the threat is qualified and context added, it flags everyone as a serious health risk. This presents a carte blanche opportunity for governments to withhold freedoms from everyone indefinitely while the pandemic persists - and perhaps beyond.

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill addressed the relationship between harm and freedom when he wrote:

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

This is called the 'Harm Principle', but it is being abused by governments who have exaggerated the threat to the public that asymptomatic transmission poses.

So, can you have Covid if you are asymptomatic?

The crux of this is the PCR test and its limitations. It is perfectly possible to test positive for Covid but, due to the test's inability to distinguish between a live or dead virus, not have an active Covid infection and therefore - no symptoms. It is also possible to be pre-symptomatic and be erroneously classed as asymptomatic if tested positive. This is different from someone who is asymptomatic because they are not infected. Is that clear? OK, you may have to read that a few times.

It seems to have become readily accepted that there are millions of healthy, asymptomatic but infected, people out there, ignorant that they may indeed be 'superspreaders' and silent 'killers'. But is this true?

A city-wide prevalence study of almost 10 million people in Wuhan found no evidence of asymptomatic transmission.

One study that has been cited to 'prove' asymptomatic transmission admits that:

"It is important to note that detection of viral RNA does not equate infectious virus being present and transmissible. For a better understanding of the viral shedding and potential transmissibility of asymptomatic infection, large rigorous epidemiologic and experimental studies are needed."

Of the 303 participants who tested positive in the study, 110 were asymptomatic. In the following days, 19% (21) turned out to be pre-symptomatic and developed symptoms of Covid-19. The remaining 89 developed no symptoms - despite testing positive. As noted by the study this may be because the PCR test is detecting dead viral RNA which stays in the host for weeks after infection, it doesn't make them infectious.

This is frustrating because such studies are cited as proof of asymptomatic transmission, but unless these caveats are made clear to the reader they are misleading.

The fact these scenarios have not been explained to the public creates a false picture of the pandemic and wrongly places suspicion on asymptomatic individuals as ignorant, careless 'spreaders'.

While some may be pre-symptomatic, as in the study, it's likely to be a small percentage. But that's not all. There is also 'viral shedding' to consider in evaluating if someone poses a risk of infection to another. Shedding is how much virus someone transmits. The most shedding occurs not when an individual is pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic but when they have symptoms. This makes sense, for example, if someone is coughing and sneezing they are propelling more viral load into the air than someone who is just breathing.

It's crucial to understand these distinctions otherwise a conflation easily occurs - as is happening now - where asymptomatic individuals are grouped together, as an equal threat, with those who have visible symptoms. This is wrong and a big deal.

Government policy is riding on the back of asymptomatic transmission, which is being used to impose unnecessary restrictions on healthy people. As Health Minister Matt Hancock said: "Everyone should behave as if they have the virus to get it back under control"

As far as the UK government's concerned, you cannot not have the virus, you are by default a 'harm to others' but the real harm is to our freedoms.

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