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Vol 8 No 2: Medical Testing, Diagnosis and Value

Hidden Perils: Diagnosing Asymptomatic Disease Carriers

July 9, 2020
July 16, 2021


COVID-19, a disease induced by SARS-CoV-2, became a worldwide pandemic while SARS, a disease induced by a closely related virus, SARS-CoV, was successfully contained. This is because COVID-19, unlike SARS, can be spread by people who do not display any symptoms of disease, either because they are in the early stages of the infection or because their infection remains clinically silent. This research article traces the complex history of the diagnosis of symptom-free (or asymptomatic) carriers of pathogens, a term inseparably linked to the rise of the laboratory diagnosis of pathogens. Only such a diagnosis can reveal that an apparently healthy individual harbours dangerous bacteria, parasites, or viruses. The article begins with the iconic story of ‘Typhoid Mary’, a New York cook found to be an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever microbes. It then discusses divergent approaches to the treatment of symptom-free carriers of hookworm and controversies around the screening of HIV carriers, especially before the development of anti-retroviral treatments. It concludes with a presentation of the debates on the role of asymptomatic carriers in the spread of COVID-19 and of the differences between the approaches of countries seeking to eliminate this disease, a goal that itself entails tracing and isolation of all asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus, and those trying to contain it, an approach that tolerates the presence of a limited number of ‘invisible’ virus carriers.