“Your Coronavirus Test is Positive. Maybe It Shouldn’t Be.” So says the title of a new article in The New York Times.
For months, we have heard about scores of people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus but have been asymptomatic. That is, though they appear to have contracted the virus, they aren’t experiencing any symptoms.
Why is this?
According to The Times, some health experts are now wondering whether “the standard tests are diagnosing huge numbers of people who may be carrying relatively insignificant amounts of the virus.”
If someone is not carrying a significant amount of the virus, “most of these people are not likely to be contagious.”
If correct, this raises questions about the entire pandemic strategy of the past few months, where mass testing and quarantining have become the norm. If someone cannot spread the virus, what is the point of quarantining them?
According to The Times, the regular test, which has been used to test tens of millions of Americas for the coronavirus, is known as the PCR test. This test provides only a yes or no result, meaning there is no grey area where, though you may have a small amount of the virus, it may not be enough to infect others or cause serious, or any, symptoms.
“In three sets of testing data that include cycle thresholds, compiled by officials in Massachusetts, New York and Nevada, up to 90 percent of people testing positive carried barely any virus,” The Times notes.
If this holds true for all tests carried out nationwide, it could mean that 90% of those who test positive for the virus don’t need to “isolate” or “contact trace,” according to The Times.
“It’s just kind of mind-blowing to me that people are not recording the C.T. values from all these tests — that they’re just returning a positive or a negative,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, told The Times.
The C.T. value refers to the viral load, that is, the amount of virus that the person is carrying.
As of publication, 6,004,443 Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If 90% of those people who have tested positive maybe shouldn’t have, as The Times indicates, that would reduce the total number of positive cases to 600,444.
One recommendation that virologists make in the article is an expansion of rapid testing. Because the PCR test is extremely sensitive, it may show a positive test even though the person has a very small viral load.
However, with a less sensitive rapid test, there is less of a chance that a person will test positive with a small viral load. And, that person can be quickly retested in case their viral load was small simply because they have been newly infected.
“Test them again, six hours later or 15 hours later or whatever,” Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Times.
The Trump administration seems to agree with this strategy.
On August 27, the administration announced that it would purchase 150 million rapid tests “to be distributed around the country.” The funding for the tests was made available through Operation Warp Speed in coordination with Abbott Laboratories, the maker of the tests. Production of the rapid tests will scale up to 50 million per month, a press release noted.
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