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International Development Minister Karina Gould, seen here on April 8, 2019, didn’t fault Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and the WHO’s technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic.The Canadian Press

A federal minister says there was no “malicious intent” when a World Health Organization official played down the asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19, even though science shows people without symptoms play a major role in the spread of the virus.

International Development Minister Karina Gould made her remark after Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and the WHO’s technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, said on Monday that asymptomatic spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is “very rare.” Ms. Van Kerkhove walked back her comments the next day, saying that while the science isn’t settled, some models estimated up to 40 per cent of coronavirus transmission might be due to spread by asymptomatic cases.

Speaking to The Globe and Mail, Ms. Gould didn’t fault Ms. Van Kerkhove for her comments, instead saying there is still a lot scientists don’t know about the virus. The opposition parties have questioned the Liberal government’s reliance on guidance from the WHO and its reluctance to criticize the organization’s response to the crisis.

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“I don’t believe there was any malicious intent in that,” Ms. Gould said. “I think that we are all still learning a lot and trying to make decisions based on the best evidence and science that is available. And I think that as we continue to move through this pandemic we will learn more and advice will change.”

Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies program, further clarified the WHO’s position on Tuesday, saying the organization is “absolutely convinced” that asymptomatic transmission is occurring and wearing a mask can help mitigate the risk of spread.

Since the start of the pandemic, the WHO has faced questions and criticism about its advice on issues such as travel restrictions, border closures, the use of masks and asymptomatic transmission of the virus. Canada closely relies on WHO advice to inform its public-health decisions.

Health Canada’s website says asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission of the virus is occurring but it remains unclear if it is a major driver of spread.

However, scientists say the research suggests asymptomatic people are an important source of infection to others.

Amir Attaran, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s school of epidemiology and public health and its faculty of law, took issue with Ms. Gould’s suggestion that scientists are still trying to understand the virus.

“With all due respect Ms. Gould, we know perfectly well that there’s asymptomatic transmission. Ms. Gould’s answer is indefensibly defending something as debatable when it isn’t debatable. She is just wrong," he said.

Prof. Attaran pointed to a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine, which concluded that asymptomatic people play a "major role” in the transmission of the virus and are the “Achilles heel” of current strategies to control the spread.

Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux said he wasn’t surprised by the WHO’s backtracking this week, given past mix-ups. He said that while he believes in the value of the WHO’s work, the Liberal government overly relies on the organization for advice.

“At the end of the day, we should be following the advice of our own researchers and top doctors here."

Don Davies, the NDP health critic, said Ottawa has been very quick to adopt WHO guidance but slow to question it when it comes to COVID-19.

“The lesson in all this is when we’re in uncharted territories, it’s better to adopt positions that have some flexibility and to seek to be open to verifying them."

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