Coronavirus

PCR tests and the prickly partnership between science and state

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As COVID-19 case counts rise across the United States and Europe, it is important to understand how we identify active cases, but some scientists are concerned that positive test results conflate active case numbers.

Finding an active case of COVID-19 involves a diagnostic test using a technique known as polymerase-chain reaction, or PCR. PCR is a trusted, accurate way to find viral fragments in a patient’s sample. The process occurs by isolating a small segment of RNA, viral genetic code, and amplifying it to a level that it becomes detectable by the test as a positive result. 

The test is run through multiple cycles in order to amplify the level of RNA present in the sample, and once reaching a certain level, is deemed a positive result. The number of cycles needed to register a positive test is called the cycle threshold (CT) value. The lower the CT value, the greater the amount of virus in the sample. 

Even though Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that any positive test result obtained at more than 35 cycles is “just dead nucleotides” and likely not infectious, many states use PCR tests that do not max out until 40 cycles or more. The predominant diagnostic test for coronavirus in Maine runs to 45 cycles

Fauci’s statement, as well as data from New York, Nevada and Massachusetts, analyzed by the New York Times earlier this year have cast doubt on the need for such sensitive PCR testing for COVID-19. The CDC itself notes that while patients are no longer infectious after 10 days from symptom onset, viral fragments may remain in the respiratory tract up to three months later. These leftover viral particles may be caught with a swab and amplified to a degree through PCR to trigger a false positive result.

Even the inventor of PCR, Dr. Kary Mullis, said that “you can find almost anything in anybody” using the test. Dr. Mullis passed away last September, and maintained the accuracy of his invention, but he asserted that inference of its results had been misused. In a public forum on the AIDS epidemic, he expounds on this belief, noting that “[PCR] allows you to take a very miniscule amount of anything, make it measurable, and then talk about it in meetings and things as it is important.”

A 1996 article by John Lauritsen, an investigative journalist for the New York Native during the HIV epidemic in the US, described the test via Mullis’ illumination:

“To make an analogy: using the viral load tests to gauge viral activity would be like finding a few fingernail clippings; amplifying the fingernail clippings into a small mountain of fingernail clippings mixed in with other junk; and then having an ‘expert’ come along and interpret the pile as representing a platoon of soldiers, fully armed and ready for battle. In short, the viral load tests are a scam.”

Dr. Randy Rasmussen, developer of the equipment used to process PCR tests, published a paper with researchers in Germany, Japan, and the United States looking into the potential to establish quantifiable virus fragments in PCR results. Rasmussen expressed great skepticism at tests run over 40 doublings, or cycles. In the introduction, he explains that “[b]y nature, an exponential amplification is not ideally suited to quantification. Small differences in amplification efficiency between samples can become huge differences in results when they are amplified through 40 doublings. Anyone working with quantitative PCR who forgets this fact is in danger of making mistakes that are measured in orders of magnitude.” 

Rasmussen, like Mullis, notes that “quantitative PCR is an oxymoron” because it cannot determine whether a patient who tests positive is infectious. The prickly aspect of this is that we are being told that not only is a positive result determinant of a live, current infection, the person who tested positive is now considered a “case” in overall data about COVID-19. This is compiled and reported by fear-addled journalists without any additional context on the severity of the infection.

If the state can claim superseding scientific authority, maintaining accountability to the scientific method of debate and discovery is nearly impossible. This is why I have previously warned about the collusion between science and state. Leaders in government and their paid scientists have little incentive to admit mistakes because the consequences are political. Political consequences determine whether that scientist gets to keep his or her job.

It is a dilution of the well-established credibility that research scientists once held in modern society. What’s most unfortunate, is that all scientists are potential victims of a smeared reputation because of a select powerful few who have replaced scientific knowledge-seeking with the false idol of state power.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray, of Cornish, currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around Maine.

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