Interviews with doctors and public health officials in more than a dozen countries show that for two crucial months — and in the face of mounting genetic evidence — Western health officials and political leaders played down or denied the risk of symptomless spreading.Leading health agencies including the World Health Organization and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control provided contradictory and sometimes misleading advice. A crucial public health discussion devolved into a semantic debate over what to call infected people without clear symptoms.The two-month delay was a product of faulty scientific assumptions, academic rivalries and, perhaps most important, a reluctance to accept that containing the virus would take drastic measures.The resistance to emerging evidence was one part of the world’s sluggish response to the virus. It is impossible to calculate the human toll of that delay, but models suggest that earlier, aggressive action might have saved tens of thousands of lives.Countries like Singapore and Australia, which used testing and contact-tracing and moved swiftly to quarantine seemingly healthy travelers, fared far better than those that did not.
While public health officials hesitated, some doctors acted. At a conference in Seattle in mid-February, Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia University professor, said his research suggested that Covid-19’s rapid spread could only be explained if there were infectious patients with unremarkable symptoms or no symptoms at all.In the audience that day was Steven Chu, the Nobel-winning physicist and former U.S. energy secretary. “If left to its own devices, this disease will spread through the whole population,” he remembers Professor Shaman warning.Afterward, Dr. Chu began insisting that healthy colleagues at his Stanford University laboratory wear masks.Doctors in Cambridge, England, concluded that asymptomatic transmission was a big source of infection and advised local health workers and patients to wear masks, well before the British government acknowledged the risk of silent spreaders.
The American authorities, faced with a shortage, actively discouraged the public from buying masks. “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams tweeted on Feb. 29.
Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) February 29, 2020
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
"Why doesn't the public trust us" sob the people who sold a cynical lie about masks being innefective to the press— Kurt, myself today (@Freidland2) June 28, 2020
[CDC head] Azar also pushed back on the idea that the new surge in cases is a result of reopening the country too fast, arguing, "That's not so much about what the law says on the reopening than what our behaviors are within that. If we act irresponsibly, if we don't social distance, if we don't use face coverings ... we're going to see spread of disease."