WHO advice about asymptomatic transmission has changed since the start of the pandemic

9 July 2021
What was claimed

A video shows Matt Hancock saying the WHO told him there is no evidence for asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19.

Our verdict

He did say this, when talking about how the advice over time changed. It is now known that asymptomatic transmission is a factor in the spread of Covid-19.

What was claimed

The Covid-19 vaccines are in trials and are all experiments ending in 2023.

Our verdict

The Covid-19 vaccine trials have been published in peer-reviewed journals, but data collection is ongoing to allow several years of follow-up on patients.

A video shared over 1,500 times on Facebook claims to show a clip of former health secretary Matt Hancock saying he was told by the World Health Organisation that there was no evidence for asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19. A voiceover in the video then claims that therefore this shows there was no need for lockdown, social distancing, masks or vaccines.

The video shows a short snippet of Mr Hancock giving evidence to the combined science and technology, and health and social care committees on 10 June 2021. The wider discussion shows he was talking about the situation in 2020, and the video just picks out a small part of this. 

Before the clip in the video, Mr Hancock claimed that in January 2020, the consensus based on the behaviour of other coronaviruses, was that people who weren’t displaying symptoms would not transmit the disease. He then went on to describe how the evidence that this wasn’t the case emerged from China, Germany, and later the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, and Public Health England.

The chair (Conservative MP Greg Clark) challenged this and went on to ask him about the minutes of a late January meeting of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies which advises the government) which said: “There is limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission but early indications imply some is occurring.” 

The exchange, including the part shown in the video, went as follows:

Chair: In the minutes of SAGE it was not recorded that the consensus is that there is no asymptomatic transmission. Quite the opposite. They are saying that early indications imply some is occurring.

Matt Hancock: But the World Health Organisation advice and the clinical advice of the most likely situation that I received remained that asymptomatic transmission was unlikely. In fact, the WHO’s position was, “There has been no documented asymptomatic transmission.” As I say, given all of this debate, and this is an absolutely accurate reflection of the debate, I should have stuck to my guns and said that even if it is uncertain, and even if it is relatively small, we should base policy on that. Even though the formal advice I was receiving was that asymptomatic transmission is unlikely and we should not base policy on it, I should have overruled that.

So the video does not prove that Matt Hancock or the WHO currently think that asymptomatic transmission doesn’t happen, or give evidence on whether subsequent policies were required. 

Later studies on Covid-19 itself, rather than related diseases, suggest that asymptomatic transmission does make a significant contribution to transmission.

The video’s voiceover also claims that the vaccines are “on trial” and “experiments ending in 2023”. 

The trial completion dates are set in the future to allow for long-term follow-up, but analyses of the data from phase three trials have been published in peer-reviewed studies in medical journals.

We’ve written about this claim in more detail before.

This article is part of our work fact checking potentially false pictures, videos and stories on Facebook. You can read more about this—and find out how to report Facebook content—here. For the purposes of that scheme, we’ve rated this claim as false because Matt Hancock did say that the WHO told him this, but that was very early in the pandemic, and the scientific consensus, agreed by scientists, the UK government and the WHO, has changed.

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