Fact check: The World Health Organization did not say COVID-19 can’t transmit from person to person

Social media users are sharing a video with a caption that claims the World Health Organization (WHO) has said social distancing is not needed as COVID-19 cannot transmit from person to person. This is false.

FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

Examples of the posts can be seen (here , here , here and here).

In the video Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, is heard saying: “From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onwards to a secondary individual”.

This clip is paired with a caption that claims the WHO has made “a complete U turn” and now advises that coronavirus patients don’t need to be isolated or quarantined. It also claims that the organisation has said social distancing is not needed because the virus cannot transmit from one patient to another.

While Kerkhove did make the comment in the video, current WHO guidelines maintain that COVID-19 is a contagious disease that should be treated as such.

“People can catch COVID-19 from others who have the virus. The disease spreads primarily from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth, which are expelled when a person with COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, or speaks”, the WHO explains on its coronavirus Q&A webpage(here).

Because of this, the WHO recommends social distancing of at least 1 metre even between people who are “well with no known exposure to COVID-19" (here).

The WHO defines isolation as separating people who are ill with COVID-19 symptoms, while quarantine is “restricting activities or separating people” who are not ill themselves but may have been exposed to the virus. The health body states that both isolation and quarantine are important measures to avoid infecting others (here).

According to WHO guidelines, while current evidence suggests that most transmission happens from people with symptoms to others in close contact, there is also the “possibility of transmission from people who are infected and shedding virus but have not yet developed symptoms”, which is called pre-symptomatic transmission (here).

Crucially, the guidance goes on to acknowledge that “some people infected with the COVID-19 virus do not ever develop any symptoms, although they can shed virus which may then be transmitted to others”. These people are considered asymptomatic.

After her remark on “rare” asymptomatic transmission came under scrutiny, Kerkhove said that she had been misunderstood and that she was referring to a certain “subset of studies”.

“I used the phrase ‘very rare,’ and I think that that’s misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare. What I was referring to was a subset of studies,” Kerkhove said during a Q&A session on June 9, 2020. “I was responding to a question at the press conference. I wasn’t stating a policy of WHO or anything like that, I was just trying to articulate what we know.”(here)

She said that while the majority of the transmissions are from people that have symptoms, there are a subset of people who don’t develop symptoms, but to “truly understand how many people don’t have symptoms, we don’t actually have that answer yet.”

“But we do know that some people who are asymptomatic or people who don’t have symptoms can transmit the virus on,” she added.


False. The World Health Organization has not said that social distancing, quarantine or isolation is not needed to combat the spread of COVID-19. Nor has it said the virus is not transmitted from person to person.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact checking work (here).