CDC encourages use of new tests that detect both COVID-19 and the flu
CLAIM: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revoked Emergency Use Authorization for coronavirus PCR tests because they were inaccurate, led to false positives and confused positive influenza cases with COVID-19.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. PCR tests are considered the gold standard for coronavirus testing. CDC announced after this year it will be withdrawing its request to the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization for one early PCR test, not because that test is inaccurate, but because it can only detect coronavirus. Newer tests can now also test for influenza at the same time.
THE FACTS: The FDA has approved roughly 280 PCR coronavirus tests, which determine whether sequences from the viruses’ RNA genome are present in a patient’s nasal swab. Early in the pandemic, in February 2020, the CDC introduced a COVID-19 PCR test, known as the “CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel.”
Some newer coronavirus tests can now also simultaneously test whether a patient is positive for influenza, but the CDC’s February 2020 PCR test only has the capacity to detect signs of a COVID-19 infection.
On July 21, the CDC announced that after this year, it would no longer request an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA for that one test, which means laboratories will stop using it.
Kristen Nordlund, health communication specialist at the CDC, told The Associated Press the move was because newer PCR testing options now exist.
“The CDC 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019 nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel met an important unmet need when it was developed and deployed and has not demonstrated any performance issues,” Nordlund said.
She said the agency was encouraging labs to switch to tests that can also detect influenza at the same time, since it will “save both time and resources.”
But social media users misinterpreted and misrepresented the announcement. False claims circulated on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that the CDC’s move meant the agency and the FDA had admitted PCR tests do not work. Some posts online falsely said the test was unable to differentiate between coronavirus and influenza, leading to inflated COVID-19 counts and depressed flu counts.
In fact, PCR tests are designed to detect very specific areas of the viral genome, so tests do not get confused between which virus is present, said Matthew Binnicker, director of the clinical virology lab at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“PCR tests, including the one developed by the CDC, are highly accurate and are able to differentiate between SARS-CoV-2 and influenza,” Binnicker said. “In other words, a COVID-19 test will not be positive if a person really has influenza, and vice versa.”
Binnicker said there are benefits to having one test that can detect both viruses, since the symptoms for both illnesses are often similar early on.
Furthermore, neither the CDC nor the FDA has cast any doubts on the effectiveness of PCR technology. “PCR tests are generally considered to be the ‘gold standard’ for COVID-19 diagnosis,” said James McKinney, a press officer for the FDA.
This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with Facebook and other platforms to add context to misleading content and reduce its circulation online.
Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536