Are PCR tests the true source of the pandemic? Can adjusting the tests save us from Covid-19? That’s the question we dig into today. But the context is just as
Tribalism, they call it. The idea that right and wrong is determined by who does it, not what it is that’s being done.
Football used to be the go-to example. Was it a handball, or the hand of God? Depends on who you are, signalled by the colour of your shirt, not the rules or what actually happened.
But Covid-19 has pushed tribalism into every aspect of our lives.
Merely mentioning facts has huge implications these days. It allows all those around you to put you in a box which tells them everything they need to know about you. How you vote, what you do, what you think and how you will react to every future event.
Which tribe you belong to, in other words. One word can give it away and make you a friend or foe for life.
I was sceptical of those who worried about growing tribalism. Until Covid-19 came along. Even Brexit wasn’t as divisive as this. In fact, Brexit had the opposite effect because Brexiteers could be found across all spectrums of all divides. The existing tribes were upended, not cemented into warring factions.
Besides, debates and divides in society aren’t new. We just forget about them over time as they disappear.
But Covid-19 has pushed tribalism to a whole new level. Beyond climate change, the election of Trump or any other drama I’ve seen. Perhaps because Covid-19 has a direct impact on every aspect of our life.
With Covid-19 having divided us into tribes, all other issues are now being assigned to the corresponding Covid-19 tribes too. Anyone who disagrees with one particular belief you have is immediately assumed to disagree with all of them. Because they are from another tribe. They are an enemy, as defined by a single disagreement over Covid-19.
But a radical shift occurred last week. The tribe in charge left the highest offices in the world. A new US regime is in charge. And that means everything has changed. Suddenly, which tribes believe which things has shifted radically to reflect the new order.
With Joe Biden in office, the science of Covid-19 seems to have radically changed, practically overnight. Suddenly, lockdowns don’t work, Covid-19 tests are not as accurate as we thought, vaccines are not as powerful as we thought, and “the accepted truth” on every other hotly debated topic has changed.
US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told the world it’s “liberating” to “let the science speak” under the new president. Which begs the question what he’s been saying…
Anyway, the science certainly spoke. Within an hour of Biden’s inauguration, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published new version of its PCR test guidance on its website, with my emphasis added:
Description of the problem: WHO requests users to follow the instructions for use (IFU) when interpreting results for specimens tested using PCR methodology.
Users of IVDs must read and follow the IFU carefully to determine if manual adjustment of the PCR positivity threshold is recommended by the manufacturer.
Manual adjustment? Hmm…
WHO guidance Diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2 states that careful interpretation of weak positive results is needed. The cycle threshold (Ct) needed to detect virus is inversely proportional to the patient’s viral load. Where test results do not correspond with the clinical presentation, a new specimen should be taken and retested using the same or different NAT technology.
WHO reminds IVD users that disease prevalence alters the predictive value of test results; as disease prevalence decreases, the risk of false positive increases. This means that the probability that a person who has a positive result (SARS-CoV-2 detected) is truly infected with SARS-CoV-2 decreases as prevalence decreases, irrespective of the claimed specificity.
Then comes my favourite bit. That highly reliable PCR test? To paraphrase Captain Barbossa, it “is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual results”:
Most PCR assays are indicated as an aid for diagnosis, therefore, health care providers must consider any result in combination with timing of sampling, specimen type, assay specifics, clinical observations, patient history, confirmed status of any contacts, and epidemiological information.
The point is that we now know what… we already knew months ago. When the WHO first issued its guidance on PCR tests. But back then, we had a different president, you see? So the obvious conclusion from The New York Times in August 2020 was ignored by policymakers:
Some of the nation’s leading public health experts are raising a new concern in the endless debate over coronavirus testing in the United
States: The standard tests are diagnosing huge numbers of people who may be carrying relatively insignificant amounts of the virus.
Most of these people are not likely to be contagious, and identifying them may contribute to bottlenecks that prevent those who are contagious from being found in time.
Have a guess when that New York Times article was itself updated…
Nope, not quite on Biden’s inauguration day. The day before…
Anyway, what exactly does the PCR test get wrong? Well, it isn’t wrong. It just doesn’t do quite what you think it does.
The PCR test works by amplifying what it’s searching for until it becomes detectable. The problem with this is simple. If you amplify often enough, roughly doubling each time, then even the smallest amount of harmless viral genetic material can be amplified enough to get a “positive” result.
The question is how many times to cycle the amplification for an accurate test – the maximum Ct level that should be used before ending the test. Too many cycles and just about everyone tests positive. Especially when the virus has been around us for months. As one article we’ll get to below explains, “in theory, it can detect even a single RNA molecule. You just need to do more cycles.”
But what Ct is “accurate”? We don’t really know. It changes over time. And yet, the arbitrary decision has to be made. By someone…
By deciding how many cycles to do in testing, and how many cycles are the appropriate threshold for a decision to be made on positive or negative, authorities can control the rate of positive tests irrespective of the amount of people who are actually sick with Covid-19. Especially if they don’t publish the amount of cycles, which few testers do.
In fact, the Ct issue is so subjective that some are arguing the amount of cycles it takes to get a positive test should be used as a measure for how contagious a test subject is. In other words, our Ct is a measure for how much Covid-19 we have already… It’s not about positive or negative any more, it’s about just how positive you are. Because the test is so good, it’ll find some viral material in there somewhere.
At least, all that’s my understanding…
The conclusions are important. As the virus becomes more prevalent all around us, the PCR test becomes less reliable for practical purposes. It’s just as accurate, allowing defenders of the PCR to make veiled claims about its great accuracy, but it’s picking up such small amounts of viral material that it’s not actually relevant to our public health policies.
We have a casedemic on our hands instead of a pandemic. A lot of positive tests which are accurately testing positive, but a proportion of the test subjects don’t have Covid-19 in the meaningful sense you and I care about, they just have some insignificant viral material on them which was amplified in the testing enough to get a positive result.
You might say that the tests are too good for our own good. At least, they can be dialled up to be.
Back to the politics of it. Which are getting dangerous.
Biden’s opponents have predicted what they think will happen next. Here’s what Stacey Lennox at the far-right PJ Media predicted would happen in October:
… the CDC or FDA will issue new guidance lowering the Ct the labs use, and cases will magically start to fall. In reality, the change will only eliminate false positives, but most Americans won’t know that.
Now that the WHO has re-issued its warning about PCR test cycle thresholds, no doubt sceptics expect governments to change the world’s PCR testing thresholds next, dramatically reducing the amount of positive tests by reducing the cycles run…
Just in time for… I won’t steal Lennox’s prediction’s thunder:
Good old Uncle Joe [Biden] will be the hero, even though it is Deep-State actors in the health bureaucracies who won’t solve a problem with testing they have been aware of for months. TDS [Trump Derangement Syndrome] is a heck of a drug.
Remember, this was the prediction in October… Months after the science on PCR tests was “settled”, as they say. But months before the WHO actually reissued its release above, within hours of the inauguration of President Biden.
But it’s not just PCR tests caught up in the Covid-19 mess. One of the funniest articles I’ve read about the pandemic is this one. It exposes the war raging between advocates of PCR tests and advocates of the alternatives. It turns out scientists disagree about science!
But, when you’ve got a pair of flawed tests, the nature of that debate becomes a bit of a circus. And, as a former talentless circus performer, I can tell you that isn’t a nice thing to say.
Tom Chivers outlines the extent of the disagreement in the article:
… one side claims that the tests are more than 90% effective at what they do; the other side says they could be as low as 3%, depending on what you mean by “effective”.
In other words, they can’t agree on the basics.
That quote isn’t about PCR tests, it’s about the alternative: lateral flow tests. These are less accurate than PCR, which can be too accurate to be useful, or at least are largely subjective in whether they produce a positive result. The key difference is that lateral flow tests supposedly only find active viruses. The ones that matter, apparently. Not that scientists can agree on that bit.
If lateral flow tests pick up the viruses that matter, this could solve the PCR tests’ problem of testing positive for viruses that don’t matter. But does it?
Here’s the testing conundrum summed up: the PCR test can be cycled so often that it detects, theoretically, a single RNA molecule. It just has to be amplified enough by cycles. But a lateral flow might miss a load of dangerous superspreaders’ virus loads.
Cue a huge bust-up between scientists over which should be used, when and how. With both of their tests flawed to some extent, they can’t verify each other’s claims properly either. And when they try, they still disagree.
This is all ripe ammo in the tribal war between camps, of course. Consider, for example, this simple question. Is a positive PCR test a false positive if the test subject isn’t really sick? They merely had some non-dangerous viral material which the PCR test accurately found?
The fact that we can’t agree on whether this is a false positive or not means the entire debate goes haywire. Perfect for our tribal situation, where such debates are pretty much wanted to go haywire anyway.
But it’s not just the testing that’s experiencing a huge shift under the Biden administration. Suddenly, lockdowns don’t work either. The Financial Times:
England’s lockdown fails to suppress rise in Covid transmissions
Imperial College study shows ‘no evidence of decline’ and slowly increasing R number
Will the beatings lockdowns continue until morale the R rate improves?
Or will the new political situation reverse government policy?
Lockdown advocate extraordinaire Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has argued restaurants and bars should be opened for indoor dining “as soon as possible” after her closure proved ineffective at stopping the spread of Covid-19.
When did she have a change of heart? Just before Biden’s inauguration of course.
In California, scientists are now arguing that California’s ban on outdoor dining may have made the pandemic worse. It sent people indoors, where Covid-19 is more likely to spread. Hence California’s combination of a very severe lockdown and a very severe Covid-19 surge.
California’s outdoor dining ban is a great example of how a government policy to solve a problem can simply worsen that problem. In predictable ways, I might add…
To those of you who clamour that our government must do something to fight the pandemic, don’t forget that what it comes up with may make the problem worse.
When it comes to policies that may have worked, well, Priti Patel said it best, but only behind closed virtual doors: “On ‘should we have closed our borders earlier,’ the answer is yes. I was an advocate of closing them last March.”
Suddenly, everyone was. So, who wasn’t?
Nigel Farage responded on Twitter: “What a pity Boris Johnson didn’t listen to Priti Patel.”
On vaccines, the science is getting worrying too. In Israel, leading the world on vaccines, the government’s coronavirus czar said he has been disappointed by the Pfizer vaccine’s results so far. Nachman Ash said a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine appeared “less effective than we had thought”. Will the second one be too?
The vaccine that was supposed to open borders may now “usher in Fortress Britain” instead according to the Telegraph. Our healthy vaccinated population may have to isolate itself off from the world, that’s how good the vaccine is…
Remember when Matt Hancock claimed that Britain was able to approve our vaccine faster because of Brexit? This was refuted by Downing Street and the UK’s medicines regulator. But now an Irish diplomat claims the following:
Our Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, has just been rebuffed publicly when he suggested that Ireland should bring in some supplies of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID vaccine in anticipation of its approval by the European Medicines Agency.
The Irish Government was sharply told by the Commission that this would not be permitted.
It is hard to see how any democratic Government should allow itself to be overruled by an unelected body like the Commission especially when the health of its citizens is involved in a pandemic.
No vaccine for you… until the political situation changes.
It’s not just the science and Covid-19 that has suddenly reversed with the advent of the Biden presidency. NBC reports the following ironic news:
Before President Joe Biden finished his first day in office and before the Senate trial of his predecessor has even begun, a Georgia Republican has filed articles of impeachment against the new president. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced the articles Thursday, alleging corruption by President Biden in his dealings with Ukraine and abuse of power pertaining to his son, Hunter.
And you thought the drama might be over? It’s actually just reversed as the tribe in power has reversed.
Suddenly, elections are fair when four years ago they weren’t, and the authority of the president shouldn’t be questioned after four years of doing so. Republicans are threatening spurious impeachments, just to expose how nothing changes and everything stays the same. It’s just a reversal of the same old stories based on who is in power.
Those protestors on the streets of the US while Biden was being inaugurated? Before the ceremony, the warnings were of right-wing Trump supporters. But now they’re suddenly left-wing protestors, or, at least, as the Australian media incredulously put it, “Protesters dressed as far-left, antifa demonstrators smashed windows”. Yes, dressed as…
Remarkable how a change of US president can change the world, isn’t it? The incentives of so many people radically shift. Their tribe is now in power. All your opinions, the science and everything else must do a 180 to reflect the new order.
Let’s hope Harry gets a handball in there somewhere next year.
Editor, Fortune & Freedom