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A Study's Bombshell Finding That Has Been Ignored
Bolstering results from an earlier paper, a new study upends the logic behind the pandemic response. Forced masking and distancing of healthy people may have had little societal benefit.
Despite very low numbers of people with serious illness, a recent rise in Covid cases has led to a return of mask mandates in a number of institutions. In Hollywood, the movie studio Lionsgate issued a requirement for masks. As have several colleges and universities, along with hospital systems in California and New York. Some medical and health professionals have even demanded a return of mask mandates in schools.
The return of required faced coverings, of course, echoes official masking guidance and policies that were enacted in many contexts from spring 2020 through early 2022. Universal masking was part of a broader pandemic response, beyond vaccinations, that was based on mandatory nonpharmaceutical interventions, that also included quarantining healthy people who were potentially exposed to an infected person, banning gatherings of healthy people in churches and other locations, and long-term preemptive closures of schools and businesses.
Mask mandates and these other interventions were—and are—premised on a basic idea: a large portion of healthy people may unknowingly be infected with Covid and could transmit the virus to others. The results from a unique, new study, however, call this logic into question.
The paper, published in the August issue of the journal The Lancet Microbe, found that infected people presymptomatically—that is before they developed symptoms—very rarely had the ability to infect others.
This is the second rigorous study—the first I reported on in May of this year— with a groundbreaking result that showed the limited ability of most people without symptoms to infect others.
What this means is that compelling people without Covid symptoms to wear masks in any number of environments—including, most controversially, schools—along with quarantining healthy people, closing schools, and other social distancing measures likely yielded far, far less societal benefit than we were told.
Neither finding has received much attention (outside of this newsletter), though both studies employed methods that are more reliable than those that supported the notion that “silent spread” fueled the pandemic.
The Lancet paper detailed the results of what is known as a challenge study, where participants were purposefully infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid) and then monitored in a controlled environment. The researchers, from Imperial College London, then tested for presence of the virus on the inside of masks worn by participants, their hands, and the air and surfaces in individual rooms that participants were kept in for at least 14 days. The authors found that just 7% of emissions into the air and environment from infected participants occurred before the first reported symptom.
This is an arresting finding, considering that it contradicts the prevailing wisdom among health professionals, authorities, and the public. Modeling studies—which are conjecture, based on subjective inputs from the modelers—as early as May 2020 had estimated that roughly 30% to 50% of community transmission occurred before reported symptoms. This set the narrative for the pandemic, and was used as a justification for much of the policies imposed on the public.
The Imperial College study bolsters the findings from a little-known study that I reported on earlier this year. That study, by researchers at Stanford University, assessed the results of a unique PCR test they developed that was able to determine not just whether a person was infected—which is what a standard PCR test does—but also whether they were capable of infecting other people. From their special test, the researchers found a remarkable 96 percent of people who were PCR-positive but without symptoms were not infectious.
Together, the findings from both the Stanford and Imperial College studies make a strong case that presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission was fairly uncommon, and certainly dramatically lower than the estimates made by models.
According to the Imperial College authors, theirs is the first real world study to quantify presymptomatic viral emissions. One would think this finding would make international headlines, and cause serious reconsidering of what was commonly believed. Yet that’s not what happened.
Of the limited coverage of the challenge study the main takeaway was about another key finding—that a small number of participants emitted a large amount of virus, and there was no correlation with severity of symptoms. This was powerful evidence for the belief that some people accounted for a disproportionate amount of transmission, the so-called “superspreader” phenomenon. It is telling that the scary finding, that reinforced existing beliefs, was highlighted, while the finding that countered the narrative held by the public health establishment—and championed by the media—was ignored.
Another intriguing finding of the study is that the amount of viral load a person possessed did not necessarily correlate with how much virus they emitted. This, too, is a bit of a stunner, given that viral load has been used in countless studies as a proxy for infectiousness. Yet by assessing not just the viral load in a person’s nose or respiratory tract, but also by measuring how much virus someone actually emitted into the air and onto surfaces, the authors found that the two do not necessarily correlate. Some people with low viral loads emitted high amounts of virus.
Like all studies, this one has a list of limitations, including a small sample size, and that it took place in a controlled environment. Also, emissions merely imply contagiousness. For example, someone could emit the virus but not in sufficient quantity or in the right context to actually infect someone else.
Still, the challenge study, along with the Stanford study, are valuable because they measure actual biomarkers, rather than epidemiological studies that merely model transmission dynamics.
As I reported in my piece on the Stanford study, we were made to believe that each of us was a potential, unwitting one-person-WMD. As a result, healthy people’s lives were upended in the name of slowing the spread. And, for certain, some top-down social distancing policies may have prevented some infected people who didn’t have symptoms, or who didn’t notice them, from transmitting to others in society. Yet the social distancing policies—the quarantines of healthy people, the closures of schools and businesses, the forever masking of children—imposed massive societal costs.
A more focused intervention would have given a far better cost benefit. Because of the low rate of emissions from presymptomatic participants, the Imperial College authors concluded that “frequent self-testing coupled with isolation upon awareness of first symptoms” could reduce onward transmissions. In other words, had schools—as they did in Sweden—and most of society simply followed the classic advice “if you’re sick, stay home,” we likely would have ended up in a similar place, yet without all of the collateral damage.
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