No, US health authorities have not abandoned the PCR testing method

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As the number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise around the world, several posts shared thousands of times on Facebook since late December claim that PCR tests have been deemed ineffective by US health authorities. The American public health agency has indeed announced to abandon the method of PCR tests because they would be unable to distinguish Sars-Cov-2 (virus at the origin of Covid-19), from the flu virus. It’s wrong. The body continues to promote this technique but has decided to favor a PCR test capable of detecting several pathogens and not just Sars-Cov-2. To date, the PCR technique is still considered the most reliable by the American health authorities.

US health authorities “admits[tent] that the ‘Covid pandemic’ was the product of improper testing” : since the end of December, many publications (such as this onei) very shared on the internet in France as in the United States affirm that PCR tests will no longer be authorized in the United States on December 31, 2021, for lack of reliability.

According to their authors, the American authorities would have recognized that the PCR tests were not in fact able to distinguish the virus at the origin of Covid from that of the flu. These false claims had started circulating in the United States as early as July 2021 on Instagram (as here Where the), before resurfacing at the end of December.

In the United States, the American conspiracy site The Gateway Pundit, whose publications are regularly the subject of verification articles in the United States, notably published an article on December 29, which accumulated more than 12,000 shares on Facebook as of January 10, according to the audience measurement software on social networks Crowdtangle.

In France, many publications have also spread online. Several sites with publications already checked several times by AFP Factual, such as the rabid sheep Where International network, took up this allegation, shared several hundred times on Facebook . Likewise, dozens of other posts support the same arguments, namely that the pandemic was overstated and the number of Covid cases was “swollen” by cases of influenza.

The questioning of the reliability of PCR tests appeared at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and gave rise to numerous verification articles by AFP Facteur, such as here, there or again there. This false information serves to accredit the idea of ​​a pandemic whose magnitude would have exaggerated, thesis that has become a classic conspiracy over the course of the pandemic.

Screenshot of a Facebook post made on January 11, 2022

But all these claims about the reliability of PCR tests and their withdrawal in the United States are inaccurate. The health authorities have not questioned the reliability of the PCR technique, it is a particular type of PCR test that has been withdrawn, not for reliability problems but for a question of screening strategy.

Since July, American health authorities, from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have already denied this false information on several occasions. At the beginning of August, the CDC even published a communicatedin which the effectiveness of the PCR method is reaffirmed.

These allegations have also been verified several times in recent months by several media (such as USA Today Where Radio Canada) and AFP Factual in the United States.

Questioned by AFP on July 27, 2021, Jim McKinney, spokesman for the FDA, the American drug agency, explained that the body “had never rejected the PCR method for screening for Covid-19“.”The FDA has authorized more than 300 tests and sample collection kits to detect Covid-19, many of which are PCR tests. PCR tests are generally considered the gold standard for the diagnosis of Covid-19“, he added.

1655600218 699 No US health authorities have not abandoned the PCR testingIncidence (number of cases detected over 7 rolling days per 100,000 inhabitants) in the United States, as of January 5 (AFP / Paz PIZARRO, Jean-Michel CORNU, Kenan AUGEARD)

An infox resulting from the erroneous reading of a document from the American health authorities

Where do these tips come from? They are based on the misreading of a document of July 21, 2021 published by the CDC mentioning the withdrawal of a specific type of PCR test.

As a reminder, PCR tests are used to detect a virus in a sample of secretions, taken from the nose or throat in general. The PCR technique consists of searching for the genome of the pathogen.

Each test is specifically designed to detect a particular pathogen.

Thus, the most widely used PCR tests since the start of the pandemic are only designed to detect Sars-Cov-2. These are called “unit” tests.

Contrary to many false claims since the start of the pandemic, these unit tests designed for Sars-Cov-2 cannot confuse it with another virus.

Interviewed by AFP Factual in September 2020, Juan Sabattedoctor and doctor in microbiology, researcher at Conicet (National Council for Scientific and Technical Research in Argentina) had indicated in particular that the PCR test could only detect “specific RNA sequences present in the RNA of the Sars-Cov-2 virus”.

A point again confirmed to AFP on January 6, 2022 by the head of the professional acts evaluation service at the High Authority for Health (HAS) Cédric Carbonneil. He also recalled that “all RT-PCR tests are tested to ensure that a positive result of a test corresponds to the targeted virus”namely the Covid-19 in this case.

But for several months, the health authorities – particularly in the United States and France – have also authorized the deployment of PCR tests capable of simultaneously detecting several viruses – such as influenza and Covid – from the same sample. These tests called “multiplexes” make it possible to know if the sample is positive for Sars-Cov-2 but also for the influenza virus or other pathogens, without having to take several samples from the patient.

The result will indicate which pathogen(s) the sample is positive for.

It is this type of test – “multiplex” – that the American health authorities now wish to promote, to the detriment of “unit” tests.

1655600219 49 No US health authorities have not abandoned the PCR testingCovid screening in Ecuador in 2022 (AFP / CRISTINA VEGA RHOR)

In the July 21 document, the CDC therefore indicates that it withdraws its “emergency permit request” made to the US administration for the “unitary” PCR test, which had been deployed at the start of the pandemic when “no other FDA-cleared method was available in the United States.”

The authorities now wish to favor the new “multiplex” PCR tests, in particular to improve the “flu and Covid-19 monitoring”.

This therefore does not call into question the effectiveness of the PCR method. On the contrary, the health authorities will continue to rely on PCR tests, but “multiplex” rather than “unit”.

And the reason is not an issue of reliability but of public health strategy.

In France, tests now capable of detecting flu and Covid used in hospitals

In France, with the resurgence of other respiratory diseases such as the flu this winter, the authorities have also considered the large-scale implementation of “multiplex” PCR tests. In October 2020, however, HAS deemed it unnecessary the implementation of these tests in the city, “the identification of the virus of winter viruses does not have any consequences on the management which is based on the treatment of the symptoms and the monitoring of the evolution of the disease”.

The High Authority had favored the development of these tests in hospitals, in “patients who present with symptoms and for whom the result will be useful in determining the nature of the treatment and/or particular isolation”.

A recommendation still relevant more than a year later, as explained by the virologist at the Lille University Hospital Anne Goffard, who had worked on this report. “In hospitals, we now systematically use multiplex PCR to detect the widest possible panel of infectious agents”she explained to AFP on January 4, 2022.

A record number of tests since December

These infox on PCR tests are also resurfacing at a time when the number of tests carried out is reaching record highs in the midst of the Omicron wave. Between December 31 and January 6, 2022, nearly 9.5 million tests, including nearly 2.9 million PCR tests, were carried out in France according to the Directorate General of Health (DGS).

The number of positive tests also continues to climb. As of January 10, Public Health France has counted 244,000 daily positive cases on average over the last 7 days, an increase of more than 50% compared to the week before. For comparison, the number of positive tests during the November 2020 wave had been limited to less than 50,000 cases per day.

1655600220 926 No US health authorities have not abandoned the PCR testingComparison of the average number over 7 rolling days of the incidence of Covid-19, the number of hospital and intensive care admissions and the number of deaths in France, between the wave of autumn 2020 and that of winter 2021 -2022, according to data from Public Health France (AFP / Kenan AUGEARD, Jean-Michel CORNU, Sabrina BLANCHARD)

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No, US health authorities have not abandoned the PCR testing method

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