Do asymptomatic carriers spread COVID? Widespread confusion in the early days of the outbreak crippled an effective response

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Credit: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA
Credit: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

Jan. 24 marks the one-year anniversary of a momentous but largely unnoticed event in the history of the Covid-19 pandemic: the first published report of an individual infected with the novel coronavirus who never developed symptoms. This early confirmation of asymptomatic infection should have set off alarm bells and profoundly altered our response to the gathering storm. But it did not. One year later we are still paying the price for this catastrophic blunder.

At least one of three people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, do not develop symptoms.

What’s needed is a pivot to a different type of testing. Antigen tests, which look for a bit of coronavirus protein, cost just a few dollars each and can yield results in minutes. Like home pregnancy tests, they require minimal instruction. Antigen tests are ideal for spotting people who are infectious, rather than those who may be long past the infectious phase of Covid-19.

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There is no time machine that would allow us to return to Jan. 24, 2020, and make the plans we should have made, which would have acknowledged the importance of asymptomatic infection. But it is not too late to recognize the blunder and move aggressively toward testing practices that will help end the pandemic.

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