One of the scarier concerns about the Wuhan coronavirus may be overblown. This week, researchers appeared to debunk findings from last week that suggested the virus could spread from people not showing symptoms. Indeed, it seems the patient initially suspected of passing on the infection while asymptomatic did in fact feel ill at the time she infected others.
Last week, on January 30, a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine detailed four of the first cases of the virus known as 2019-nCoV to be documented in Germany (there are currently 12). The first patient and possibly others were thought to have caught it from their business colleague, a woman who had recently travelled back from Shanghai. The paper said the woman appeared perfectly healthy at the time of the likely transmission, seemingly confirming the fear the virus could spread through asymptomatic people.
But as it turns out, the authors never spoke to the woman themselves, instead relying on second-hand accounts from the other patients. After the paper had been published, Science reported on Monday, German public health officials contacted the woman and found she did have symptoms indicative of an acute infection at the time, such as fever and body aches. One reason the other patients may have not known that the woman was sick was because she had taken acetaminophen to lower her fever, according to Science.
Germany’s public health agency, the Robert Koch Institute, has since sent off a letter to the scientific journal addressing the mistake, Science reported.
“I feel bad about how this went, but I don’t think anybody is at fault here,” study co-author Christian Drosten, a virologist who performed the lab testing detailed in the study, told Science. “Apparently the woman could not be reached at first and people felt this had to be communicated quickly.”
The snafu, while showing the importance of checking your sources, doesn’t necessarily mean that asymptomatic people can’t transmit the virus. Chinese health authorities had brought up the possibility of such a thing happening before the Germany cases were even known. At the same time, it’s not likely to be a major source of transmission—certainly not compared to the cases caused by contact with coughing or sneezing victims.
Either way, it’s clear that however the virus is spread, lots of people are catching it. As of February 4, there have been over 20,000 reported cases of 2019-nCoV and 425 deaths across more than 20 countries, though predominantly in China.