The COVID-19 Testing Charade

By: 
Al Jacobs

On Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom attended a news conference in Sacramento where he listened to his Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaley, address the media. Ghaley explained why approximately 350,000 coronavirus tests somehow never showed up in Governor Newsom’s optimistic report on Aug. 3, when he announced his decision to reopen many of the state’s businesses and schools. The crux of Ghaley’s justification seemed to be “a technical glitch plaguing the data system.”

Several days later California’s top public health officer, Dr. Sonia Angell resigned her position. When the governor responded as to whether she was blamed for the critical failure, Newsom refused to reply directly. He simply said “But if it’s not obvious, I encourage you to consider the fact we accepted her resignation.” And this little episode pretty well illustrates how effectively Covid testing has been operating nationally since the start of the pandemic.

If we pay attention to the advice of the world’s epidemiologists, they say mass testing for SARS-CoV-2, requiring millions of tests per country per week, is the most practical way out of the current crisis. And what is the path forward? It’s described not as a giant leap, but rather a tried and true approach. It involves testing every person in the country quickly and affordably, and again as needed based on risk and exposure. This, they say, might identify and isolate cases, track spread of the disease and help reduce further transmission. This isn’t a matter of whether, but when; they maintain we must act quickly, for there’s no time to wait for a vaccine.

You’ll be interested to know of a possible glimpse of good new news in a major east coast city. A survey of New Yorkers recently found one in five city residents carried antibodies to the coronavirus. Governor Andrew Cuomo finds this to be favorable. He reasons if many became infected and subsequently survived, the virus may prove to be far less deadly than previously believed.

However, many scientists take a darker view, seeing instead a vast pool of people still very vulnerable to infection. Like the leaders of many states, Cuomo hopes the results of large-scale antibody testing may guide decisions about when and how to reopen the economy and reintegrate society.

Unfortunately, most scientists are uncomfortable with the idea antibody tests will become an instrument of public policy. Such tests, showing who’s been infected, are often inaccurate. Recent research suggests it’s not clear whether a positive result actually signals immunity to the virus. Accordingly, the World Health Organization warns against relying on these tests for policy decisions.

We’ll now slip to the north a bit where we find getting a coronavirus test in Massachusetts may be getting easier … but once again determining how accurate the test is depends on the kind you get. One of the most common tests administered there, the antigen test, unfortunately provides a false negative result in nearly half the cases.

And it’s not a matter of defective procedures nor an unsupervised staff. The infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, Dr. Shira Doron, says “We wish we had a fast and accurate test on the market, but that’s not the case.” And as you see, this is actually a universal failing. Testing of all sorts throughout the nation is often far less than accurate. And when policy decisions are then based upon these uncertain test results, mishaps we may describe simply as unanticipated invariably occur.

The American Lung Association recently held a virtual Town Hall meeting to debunk what they believe to be widespread misconceptions about the way populations ought to be prioritized for Covid testing and how the results are then interpreted.

The director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, said during the meeting, “Far too many people misinterpret testing.” He further declared “While we need to expand our SARS-CoV-2 testing, the pandemic messaging to date needs to move beyond the ‘test, test, test!’ mantra. This is the wrong approach.”

Millions of people in the U.S. are tested each week, he added, but given the risk for false-positive or false-negative results, testing strategies require a more targeted approach. Those who are critically ill should be prioritized and tested as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms. Those without symptoms, though recently exposed may be next.

Osterholm then said: “I hope that if nothing else, everyone is learning that having a positive result for this virus in and of itself does not mean you’re infectious or infected for that matter. Viral debris can be detected weeks to months after infection.

Investigation found no evidence that people who continue to test positive for the virus after being discharged from isolation are infectious. Investigators were also unable to isolate the virus from respiratory samples of re-positive cases. Based on these findings, the report said patients who are discharged from isolation no longer need to be tested for SARS-CoV-2.”

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control now recommends that those who had COVID-19, but are no longer contagious after three days of no fever and ten days since symptoms onset, discontinue isolation and return to normal contact. Relying upon PCR (nasal swab) results is thoroughly unwarranted, said Osterholm, who added “Journals should stop accepting papers that make claims of long-term infection based on PCR status only. It really is unfortunate because the data does not support this.”

With the increasing prevalence of unreliable data demonstrating the limitations of coronavirus testing, it’s a pity so much emphasis is placed upon it in dictating how the mass of the populace must abide by the political interpretations these tests suggest. The misfortune of people being disallowed to return to work because of PCR positivity is but one example. But for some reason the media seems to be fueling this hysteria on testing. In what way is this? Consider the following news article.

On Aug. 16 a New York Times article titled “Testing drop hampers coronavirus response” appeared. The following phrases were included: “Coronavirus tests administered in the United States are essential to reigning in the pandemic, widespread testing is seen as a cornerstone for fighting the pandemic, health experts believe the nation’s testing capacity must grow far more to bring the virus under control, the country needs 1 million tests per day to slow the spread of the virus, we need as many as 4 million tests per day to get ahead of the virus and stop new cases and we must expand testing to a level that we could keep the virus in check.”

You might note, however, in not a single instance does the article even hint how the testing actually controls or slows the spread of, or fights the pandemic. However, in a paragraph near the end are two sentences providing an explanation as to why testing is so highly regarded by the medical community … and particularly by the epidemiologists, as the most vital function we can possibly engage in. The rationale is crystal clear.

“By some estimates, as much as $75 billion in additional federal funding may be needed, The Trump administration agreed to allocate an additional $16 billion for states to conduct testing and contact tracing, as part of a proposal unveiled late last month.”

A final thought: Thus far I personally know of only three persons who contracted the virus – with each easily recovered – and no one who’s died of it. However, if the pandemic can be continually marketed as the cause of death and misery, fortunes will be made by those whose anticipated prosperity is firmly tied to COVID-19 testing.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al can be contacted at al@abjacobs.com.

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