There have been several debates and conflicting theories about the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and its COVID-19. Scientists still struggle with so many unanswered questions and this is especially because they are trying to unravel the virus, to decipher its features and modes of operation. Consequently, when an answer comes it is often short-lived, only to be debunked or amended by yet another answer. This has left members of the public confused and uncertain of what to accept, believe or share, and played a role in the prevalence of misinformation and spurious, uncertain remedies for the disease.
For instance, health care workers and individuals in very close contact with people diagnosed with COVID-19 were the only ones initially allowed to wear nosemasks, but now as lockdowns are lifted, and the society returns to its new, forced normal, almost everyone is advised to ‘mask up’. There had also been speculations as to whether or not the disease was airborne, and even now, there are people who still erroneously promote that belief. Whereas in reality, the virus spreads majorly via the respiratory droplets of infected individuals dispersed in air (aerosols) or lying on surfaces, and not necessarily via air. However, it is yet unclear whether or not every infected individual plays an active role in the spread of the disease, especially since different people experience different forms or manifestations of the disease, with regards to symptoms and severity. Some researchers have suggested that as many as 25-80 percent of COVID-19 cases may not be showing symptoms (asymptomatic) and that these hidden cases may be responsible for the rapid spread of the disease.
Less than a month ago, the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi had stated in an interview that there were up to 70 percent of asymptomatic cases in Lagos, increasing the risk for a rapid spread of the disease in the state. When Maria Van Kerkhove, an official of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and head of the WHO’s Emerging Disease and Zoonosis Unit, tagged asymptomatic transmissions of the virus as very rare, the ongoing debate on the feasibility of asymptomatic transmissions of COVID-19 was reawakened, and the organisation faced criticism for its guidelines and operations in dealing with the disease.
The question of whether or not asymptomatic individuals truly exist in reality, or whether they play any (significant) role in the spread of the disease is one of the COVID-19 uncertainties that still remain largely unanswered, and highly speculated about.
Asymptomatic individuals are people who become infected by the coronavirus, but fail to show symptoms. Even though this idea has been promoted since the advent of COVID-19, scientists still share differing opinions on the possibility that asymptomatic carriers of the disease may be helping to spread it. Asymptomatic individuals differ from the presymptomatic individuals who do not show symptoms of an infection at first, but who may also be spreading the virus unknowingly, even before they start to show symptoms. There are also other individuals who do not show the more conventional, signature symptoms of cough and fever, loss of sense of smell or taste, and difficulty breathing, but only develop diarrhoea and muscle aches, as well as those who sometimes develop obvious symptoms, but refuse to test for the virus or even quarantine themselves, because they prefer to assume that their coughs, fevers and sneezes are not ‘corona-like’.
These individuals, especially the asymptomatic ones, may not be spreading the disease via respiratory droplets (since they neither cough nor sneeze), but they could be doing so when they speak, sing, shout or touch surfaces with contaminated hands (especially after touching their nose). However, not much reliable data exist to ascertain the extent to which these assumptions are true. Some researches that support asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 use small sample sizes (less than 100), and fail to fully and clearly capture the feasibility of the idea.
But then, the fact remains that since we are yet unsure of the possibility or extent of asymptomatic COVID-19 transmission, and even more about the exact characteristics of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, we must tread with caution. And this is one of the reasons why we must make it a sense of duty to trust and regard guidelines and instructions from health authorities on how best to navigate through these dark times. Individuals are advised and compelled (in some cases) to use nose masks in public because of such asymptomatic individuals. Nose masks not only keep infected individuals from spreading the disease, they also protect healthy members of the public against the virus by reducing the possibilities of them touching their mouths or nose, with hands that may have been contaminated.