Silent spread of virus keeps scientists grasping for clues

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Jessie Cornwell, a resident of the Ida Culver House Ravenna, right, poses for a photo with the Rev. Jane Pauw, in Seattle on May 21, 2020. Cornwell tested positive for the coronavirus but never became ill, and may have been infectious when she shared a ride to Bible study with Pauw, who later got sick with COVID-19. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

One of the great mysteries of the coronavirus is how quickly it rocketed around the world.

It first flared in central China and, within three months, was on every continent but Antarctica, shutting down daily life for millions. Behind the rapid spread was something that initially caught scientists off guard, baffled health authorities and undermined early containment efforts — the virus could be spread by seemingly healthy people.

As workers return to offices, children prepare to return to schools and those desperate for normalcy again visit malls and restaurants, the emerging science points to a menacing reality: If people who appear healthy can transmit the illness, it may be impossible to contain.

“It can be a killer and then 40 percent of people don’t even know they have it,” said Dr. Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute. “We have to get out of the denial mode, because it’s real.”

Researchers have exposed the frightening likelihood of silent spread of the virus by asymptomatic and presymptomatic carriers. But how major a role seemingly healthy people play in swelling the ranks of those infected remains unanswered — and at the top of the scientific agenda.

The small but mighty coronavirus can unlock a human cell, set up shop and mass produce tens of thousands of copies of itself in a single day. Virus levels skyrocket before the first cough, if one ever arrives. And astonishing to scientists, an estimated 4 in 10 infected people don’t ever have symptoms.

“For control, to actually keep the virus from coming back, we’re going to have to deal with this issue,” said Rein Houben, a disease tracker at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The dire toll of more than 580,000 worldwide deaths from the coronavirus has faded to the background as cities lift restrictions. But the slyness of the virus remains on the minds of many scientists, who are watching societies reopen, wondering what happens if silent spreaders aren’t detected until it’s too late.