By Emily Becker published
- Originally, U.S. officials believed that the novel coronavirus was spread primarily by people with known symptoms.
- Growing evidence indicates that people who are pre-symptomatic can infect others with the new coronavirus.
- Experts recommend social distancing, even if you are not in an at-risk group and feel healthy, to slow the spread of COVID-19.
As more businesses and communities put measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, scientists are working as quickly as possible to learn all they can about the disease and the novel coronavirus that causes it. New research is being published almost daily, including recent studies that suggest the virus might spread differently than officials originally thought.
Previously, scientists believed that individuals who were infected with the novel coronavirus were most contagious when their symptoms were noticeable. And that does kind of make sense; viruses are passed from person to person through particles, says Dr. Richard Kuhn, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences at Purdue University. Those particles are released when someone coughs, sneezes or wipes their nose or mouth and then touches a surface.
So, if someone looks sick—sneezing, coughing or running a fever—you would assume that they are more likely to get others sick. Current CDC guidelines specifically state that, “People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic,” and that, “Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms; there have been reports of this occurring with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” (It also states, however, that "COVID-19 is a new disease and we are still learning how it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, and to what extent it may spread in the United States.")
New research is showing that individuals may not have to be displaying symptoms of COVID-19 to be contagious.
A study published on MedRxiv about the outbreaks in Tianjin, China, and Singapore in January and February found that a significant number of infections can be attributed to people who had not yet developed symptoms. (It is worth noting that the study has not yet been peer-reviewed.) Of the COVID-19 cases in Singapore that were studied, it is thought that 48 percent of the cases were transmitted by someone who was pre-symptomatic. In Tianjin, China, that number was 62 percent.
In a recent letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers noted another circumstance in which two individuals who had recently returned to Germany from Wuhan, China, appeared to be asymptomatic, but tested positive for COVID-19 when they were given a throat swab. "We discovered that shedding of potentially infectious virus may occur in persons who have no fever and no signs or only minor signs of infection," researchers wrote in the letter.
Bill Gates wrote his own letter in the New England Journal of Medicine in February that expressed similar concerns.
"COVID-19 is transmitted quite efficiently," he wrote. "There is also strong evidence that it can be transmitted by people who are just mildly ill or even pre-symptomatic. That means COVID-19 will be much harder to contain than the Middle East respiratory syndrome or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which were spread much less efficiently and only by symptomatic people."
While this new research contradicts initial thoughts about the virus, Kuhn doesn’t find this information too surprising. “There are a lot of viral infections that start and begin to produce new viruses before someone begins to feel ill,” he says. “It’s unfortunate because it doesn’t give us a head start, it doesn’t give us a hint that someone’s infected, and it creates real problems.”
Novel coronavirus is not the first disease where someone can appear perfectly healthy but still be contagious. For example, Kuhn says, you can have the flu but not be coughing or feverish yet and still pass on the illness to someone else.
“Even if you’re feeling completely healthy, if you do have a virus and it is actively replicating, it only takes one cough or one sneeze or you wiping your nose and then touching a countertop for those viral particles to be transferred," he says. "It seems like this is a pretty infectious virus, so not many virus particles are probably required to initiate infection.” What this means is that this particular type of coronavirus seems to be especially contagious and can be passed through just a small number of virus particles. Kuhn says that even so much as touching a door handle that someone with the virus has touched could potentially transmit it from one person to another.
This is why taking preventative measures like social distancing are so important.
While our understanding of the new coronavirus may be changing, what experts have been recommending as the best ways to protect yourself from infection remain the same. In fact, this new research may even emphasize how important taking preventative measures like washing your hands and social distancing actually are.
Per the CDC, social distancing means avoiding large gatherings and staying approximately 6 feet away from other people whenever possible. On Sunday, March 15, the CDC released new recommendations to cancel events of more than 50 people throughout the United States for the next eight weeks.
Social distancing helps to slow how quickly a virus spreads and limit the potential of infecting high-risk populations. While you might be a healthy adult without any symptoms, you still run the risk of transmitting the new coronavirus to someone whose immune system might not be as well-equipped to handle the virus.
Kuhn also notes that, while doing things like working from home or staying in on the weekends instead of going out might be disruptive, they are also essential for helping to limit the spread of the virus. Especially while scientists continue to research more about this virus, you should continue to take the necessary precautions and follow the CDC's recommendations, he says.
The 12 Best Satin and Silk Hair Wraps for Your Natural Hair
Farewell to unruly hair days.
By Chelsea Hall
21 Black-Owned Handbag Brands to Know and Shop in 2022
Bookmark this page.
By Marina Liao
Royal Experts Say Kate Middleton Isn't Trying to Upstage Camilla Parker Bowles
The Duchess of Cambridge may look like a queen, but she knows how to wait her turn.
By Kathleen Walsh
Senator Klobuchar: "Early Detection Saves Lives. It Saved Mine"
Senator and breast cancer survivor Amy Klobuchar is encouraging women not to put off preventative care any longer.
By Senator Amy Klobuchar
How Being a Plus-Size Nude Model Made Me Finally Love My Body
I'm plus size, but after I decided to pose nude for photos, I suddenly felt more body positive.
By Kelly Burch
I'm an Egg Donor. Why Was It So Difficult for Me to Tell People That?
Much like abortion, surrogacy, and IVF, becoming an egg donor was a reproductive choice that felt unfit for society’s standards of womanhood.
By Lauryn Chamberlain
The 20 Best Probiotics to Keep Your Gut in Check
Gut health = wealth.
By Julia Marzovilla
Simone Biles Is Out of the Team Final at the Tokyo Olympics
She withdrew from the event due to a medical issue, according to USA Gymnastics.
By Rachel Epstein
The Truth About Thigh Gaps
We're going to need you to stop right there.
By Kenny Thapoung
3 Women On What It’s Like Living With An “Invisible” Condition
Despite having no outward signs, they can be brutal on the body and the mind. Here’s how each woman deals with having illnesses others often don’t understand.
By Emily Shiffer
The High Price of Living With Chronic Pain
Three women open up about how their conditions impact their bodies—and their wallets.
By Alice Oglethorpe