COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, has a deadly grip on the world that does not appear to be loosening anytime soon. The 2 million cases of coronavirus impacting 185 countries may just be a drop in the bucket according to new research. Scientists recently discovered that far more people have had coronavirus without showing any symptoms. Researchers say the new findings are a double-edge sword: they’re hopeful that the pandemic will turn out to be much less lethal than originally feared, while on the other hand, it’s virtually impossible to know who around you might be contagious. This latter factor severely complicates decisions about returning to work, school and normal life. Within the past few weeks, asymptomatic cases of coronavirus have cropped up in several European countries, California, a Boston homeless shelter, pregnant women at a New York Hospital, and a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.
Stealth cases of coronavirus
Based on the known cases of coronavirus, doctors say COVID-19 typically masquerades as a mild to moderate case of influenza. Researchers now say some people may have coronavirus and not even know it due to showing no symptoms at all. This means people who think they’re healthy and symptom-free may unknowingly pass coronavirus to others. The head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 25% of infected people might not have symptoms. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten, thinks it may be as high as 60% to 70% among military personnel.
Why is coronavirus going undetected?
The Associated Press reports the studies that discovered the stealth cases of coronavirus focused on tests that look for bits of the virus from throat and nose swabs, which can miss cases. Someone can test negative one day if there’s not much virus to detect and then test positive the next day. More concrete findings may come from newer tests that check blood for antibodies that fight coronavirus. California is one state where the antibody testing is underway, In Santa Clara County, the first round of antibody testing was conducted on 3,300 people. Between 1.5% and 2.8% were infected, according to researchers. This means there are anywhere between 48,000 to 81,000 cases in the county alone — more than 50 times the number that have been confirmed.
What does all this mean?
Some researchers are interpreting the findings of this study to mean we are closer to herd immunity, which means if enough people in a population have developed antibodies to coronavirus that population becomes immune. Herd immunity would allow some people to ease social distancing and get back to work sooner than expected. Even with the adjusted rate of infection as found by the study, only 3% of the population has coronavirus — which means 97% does not. To reach herd immunity, a significant portion of the population would have to be infected and recovered from coronavirus. However, researchers behind the study caution to not jump to conclusions or make sweeping policy choices until more research has been done.