The NYTimes Stabs the Panicdemic Purveyors in the Heart–Very Important Story

By August 29, 2020Commentary

Update–A reader suggested that I be a little more clear about PCR testing.  While PCR tests are sometimes used to detect proteins, in the CV-19 case they are aimed at detecting viral RNA.  A PCR test has a “primer” which is sequence of molecules designed to match up with part of the RNA in the virus.  In humans, there is DNA, which carries the sequences to make a variety of proteins which serve various purposes.  The DNA is actually translated into a molecule called RNA, which is then “read” by a cell’s protein making machinery to create the proteins.  A virus does not have DNA, it uses RNA to directly create proteins.  Oddly enough, the PCR test turns the viral RNA into DNA, because PCR tests were originally developed to match DNA and then replicate the DNA sequence.  A positive test occurs when a threshhold number of copies of DNA exist.  The number of replication cycles it takes to reach that threshhold is a critical number because it can help identify how much virus was present.  Lower cycle numbers mean more virus.  If you use higher cycle numbers, you are potentially recognizing very small amounts of viral RNA.  Hope this isn’t too technical.  And it is still pretty simplified.

My God, some semblance of journalism lives at the New York Times.  This story is what many of us have suspected, but lack access to get proof.  There are really serious problems both with the use of PCR tests and with the interpretation of the results as “positive”.  (NY Times Story)  The PCR test is a way of determining if there is virus present in a person.  Because it really only detects RNA fragments, it tells you nothing about whether the virus is viable or whether the person is infectious.  The PCR test used for CV also gives no information about viral load.  So many positive test results merely reflect the presence of some RNA fragments.  The person may never have actually been infected, and according the Times analysis, many positive results are actually very borderline and involve very low amounts of virus (again, just RNA fragments).

Based on cycle times, the technical way a PCR test would tell you how much virus (again, really just RNA fragments) is present, the Times found that 90% of positive samples in New York, Massachusetts and Nevada were barely positive.  They represent people who are almost certainly not infectious.  Every expert the Times talked to said the tests were too sensitive and the threshhold for positivity needed to be raised, otherwise time is wasted contact tracing from people who couldn’t possibly have caused transmission.  And those people are needlessly told to quarantine.

Of course the Times spins all this to mean that we need even more testing, just of a different kind.  Here is the real message:  we have tons of people who were exposed to the virus and cleared it immediately with no real infection and without being infectious.  This is almost certainly due to adaptive immunity from prior seasonal coronavirus infections or innate immunity mechanisms.  There is no other possible explanation.  That is incredibly good news and once again, demonstrates how pointless our approach to a largely harmless pathogen has been.  Imagine all the damage we have done because of this, including killing many people and worsening the health of many others.

Bring this home to the state of Minnesota.  The state told us today there were 1000 new cases reported.  Not really, there were at most around 100 cases in people who might actually be infectious.  Here is another practical example–all those cases in primary, secondary and college, I would absolutely bet that those are 99% not real positive, in the sense of infectious, cases.  Open up the schools and stop screwing around pretending we actually even have an epidemic.

And as if PCR tests weren’t in enough trouble, an updated version of a paper from April (Medrxiv Paper)  details the issues with false positives from those tests.  The authors essentially chastise policymakers and epidemiologists for relying on a single positive test result when it is known that PCR tests have serious accuracy problems.  The authors explain in a variety of scenarios just how misleading even a few false positives can be.  The entire process of a PCR test, in addition to the cycle threshhold issue described in the Times story, creates potential for mishandling, contamination, and false results.  When you are rushing to do millions of tests, the likelihood of screwups is greatly enhanced.  The authors further call for immediate steps to reduce false positives and suggest that no test should be deemed to have a positive result unless it is confirmed by a second testing.  Oh, great.  Even more testing.

What a mockery of a rational process this entire epidemic episode has been.

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • DaveK says:

    The “new” guidance that testing should be done almost exclusively on those who exhibit symptoms is a good start. Unfortunately, a lot of the anti-Trump media seem to think that this is just an effort ot hide the extent of this disease.

    It sure would be nice if the “science” reporters in much of the mainstream media would actually have a clue about what “science” really is, and avoid the politics that have nothing to do with real science.

  • SteveD says:

    Does this mean that the total number of cases could be as low as one tenth of what is reported?

  • Matt Ruyter says:

    I’ve long suspected most of the hospitalizations on MN are “with” not “from” COVID; if you look at the weekly report from MDH, it has been less than 0.5% of symptomatic surveillance for a long time. Imagine how many pregnant moms, minor planned surgeries and other admits have been flagged and counted on the MDH daily census due to this hypersensitive approach.

  • Jim Edholm says:

    Great stuff, Kevin. Glad to see that even the evil NYT is beginning to realize there is a problem, although I suspect that you’re right: they’ll use it to demand MORE testing.

  • Jim Edholm says:

    Kevin – I forwarded your NYT comments on to some friends of mine, and as I did so, a thought occurred to me. I include what I said to them here:

    “If, indeed, the NUMBER of cases is only one-tenth the REAL number, deaths are still deaths. So, it seems to me that the flip side of this truth is that the disease is actually TEN TIMES AS DEADLY as we originally thought. I’m going to write to Kevin and ask that question. But I thought this was an interesting item – both hope-giving for the economy, and a warning to all of us that we certainly need to take care to avoid infection if it’s really ten times as deadly as we think.”

    Is my though process correct, or am I missing something??

  • SteveD says:

    A small correction: PCR is not used to detect protein but rather DNA. RT-PCR (RT = reverse transcriptase) is used to detect RNA. Both techniques are incredibly sensitive so that it’s not surprising that it can pick up exceedingly small levels of COVID19. Antibody tests and Southern Blots are less sensitive but are more likely to give a real-world answer.

    The Times story supports my contention that viral load is a crucial factor which determines the possibility and level of severity of a COVID19 infection. I’ve also been saying that tests need to be repeated even with the 5% false positive rate which has been touted for so long. A 90% (functional) false positive rate is an entirely different beast.

    What is mindboggling is level of incompetence this story (if it is true) uncovers in the health care community. Not only may cases be overstated but hospitalizations and deaths may be enormously inflated as well. If someone tests positive for COVID19 and dies instead of influenza, RSV, or other cause, it is likely no test would be performed for any other cause and the death certificate would list COVID19 instead. It is possible that this pandemic is much less severe than even you have been saying (and possibly not even a pandemic at all).

    The implications are also astonishing considering all the interventions and mandates from governments have been based on not just inaccurate but essentially worthless data. I cannot think of a scientific screwup in all of history which has led to anything like the level of social and economic disruption which the response to COVID19 has.

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