FactCheck Social Media

False COVID-19 test and survival rate claims resurface

2020-08-12 17:12:28

The Statement

A Facebook post claims COVID-19 tests cannot distinguish between COVID-19, the flu and common cold. It also claims a 99.5 per cent “survival rate” for the coronavirus.

The post features an image of a yellow map of Australia in the background with text that begins with, “Dear Australia” before asking a series of questions including: “A virus with a 99.5% survival rate that has killed fewer than the normal flu season?” and “a virus that the test can’t identify separately from the flu?” A caption further claims the test can’t tell the difference COVID-19 and the common cold.

The August 5 post has received more than 300 shares and more than 21,000 views.

A Facebook post
 A Facebook post claims tests in Australia can’t distinguish between COVID-19 and the flu. 

The Analysis

There are currently two tests used to diagnose COVID-19 in Australia: the reverse transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test and the point-of-care antibody serology test. The claim about the ability of the tests to detect COVID-19 contradicts advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal Department of Health and two virology experts contacted by AAP FactCheck.

The Facebook post also repeats a previously debunked claim about the “survival rate” of COVID-19.

The PCR test, one of the two tests used to diagnose COVID-19 in Australia, swabs the back of the throat and up the nose to detect SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Point-of-care serology tests are conducted outside of laboratories to analyse a person’s body fluids using mobile devices to provide real-time results, according to NSW Health. This method can detect COVID-19 antibodies through a blood or finger prick test.

A Department of Health spokesperson told AAP FactCheck that real-time PCR tests are “the primary method of diagnosis of acute COVID-19 infection”.

The PCR test is “specific to SARS-COV-2 and will reliably detect SARS-COV-2 (ribonucleic acid) RNA whether the virus is viable or not”, the spokesperson said.

Dr Ian Mackay, a virologist and adjunct associate professor with the University of Queensland, told AAP FactCheck PCR tests are “extremely effective at very sensitively and specifically detecting SARS-CoV-2”.

“The tests detect the viral sequences we expect them to and not other viruses,” he said.

Regarding the claim the tests can’t identify COVID-19 from the flu and common cold, Professor Bill Rawlinson, a senior medical virologist at the University of NSW, told AAP FactCheck this assertion was “completely wrong”.

“COVID-19-specific serology and PCR tests will not detect flu and common cold viruses unless you use the flu PCR and flu serology or rhinovirus serology and rhinovirus PCR,” Prof Rawlinson said.

“The SARS-Coronavirus-2 antibody tests are specific for SARS-Coronavirus-2 and don’t detect the other antibodies to the other coronaviruses.”

The claim that PCR tests inaccurately detect COVID-19 has previously been debunked by AAP FactCheck. 

The post also claims the survival rate for COVID-19 is 99.5 per cent, however it is unclear how the figure was calculated nor its source.

AAP FactCheck previously checked a similar claim on the supposed COVID-19 survival rates for other countries and found they were calculated to show the deaths as a proportion of that country’s population.

Professor Robyn Lucas, head of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, previously said this method was misleading as it is “using the whole population, rather than the number who have diagnosed infection”.

“So this is not really ‘survival’ – to survive a disease you have to have the disease in the first place,” she told AAP FactCheck.

Prof Lucas said if a “survival rate” for COVID-19 was to be calculated, it would be by dividing the number of people who survived infection by the number who have had the illness.

“But even then there will be variability based on the definition of the group that has had the illness. Is it the number diagnosed with the illness, the number hospitalised with the illness, or the number who probably have the illness (i.e. including those we think are asymptomatic)?” she said.

“Depending on which group is used, you will get vastly different results.”

Medical personnel administering a test for the coronavirus disease.
 A medical officer holds a swab while administering a test for COVID-19. 

The Verdict

Based on the evidence, AAP FactCheck found the Facebook post to be false. PCR and serology tests used to diagnose COVID-19 are specific only to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The post does not show the “survival rate” for COVID-19. An epidemiologist advises that the percentage of a population that has not died from COVID-19 is not a “survival rate” and calculation of a survival rate would vary depending on what definition of illness is used.

False – The primary claims in the post are factually inaccurate.

* AAP FactCheck is accredited by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, which promotes best practice through a stringent and transparent Code of Principles. https://aap.com.au/