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Lee HardingEvery day, the news tells us about new COVID-19 positive test results. But are they reliable?

Kary Mullis, the late inventor of the diagnostic test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, explained how his test could be misused. So did a Portuguese court that ruled a positive test is an insufficient basis to isolate or quarantine anybody.

Mullis won the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. He died in August 2019, months before it would be used to diagnose SARS-CoV-2. Regardless, his weighty words remain.

“The PCR, if you do it well, … can find almost anything in anybody,” Mullis once said. “If you can amplify one single molecule up to something you can really measure, then there (are) very few molecules that you don’t have at least one … of in your body. … So that could be thought of as a misuse of it.”


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In an interview, Mullis claimed the president of the University of South Carolina invited Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to debate Mullis. Fauci declined.

“These guys like Fauci get up and start talking and he doesn’t know anything really about anything and I would say that to his face. Nothing,” Mullis said. “The man thinks you can take a blood sample and stick it in an electron microscope and if it’s got a virus in there, you’ll know it. He doesn’t understand electron microscopy and he doesn’t understand medicine and he should not be in a position like he’s in. Most of those guys up there on the top are just total administrative people and they don’t know anything about the body.

“Those guys have got an agenda, which is not what we would like them to have, being that we pay for them to take care of our health in some way. They have a personal kind of agenda. They make up their own rules as they go; they change them when they want to. And they (are smug) – like Tony Fauci does not mind going on television in front of the people who pay his salary and lie directly into the camera.

“You can’t expect the sheep to really respect the best and the brightest. They don’t know the difference, really. I like humans, don’t get me wrong, but the vast majority don’t have the ability to judge who is and who isn’t a really good scientist.”

Last summer, four German tourists were detained in Portugal indefinitely after one of them tested positive for the coronavirus. A test two weeks later drew the same conclusion, leaving the four stranded in their hotel.

Finally, they made a legal appeal under habeas corpus and were released. On Nov. 11, the Lisbon Court of Appeal in Portugal upheld that decision in a 34-page ruling. The judges noted that none of the applicants was ever seen by a doctor, “which is frankly inexplicable, given the alleged seriousness of the infection.”

Everything relied on the PCR test, which the judges found flimsy. “However, in view of the current scientific evidence, this test is, in itself, unable to determine, beyond reasonable doubt, that such positivity corresponds, in fact, to a person’s infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Such reliability was “more than debatable,” in the judges’ words, as it depended on the viral load and how many repetitive cycles in the PCR test were used to amplify the samples. Each cycle exponentially increased the load, but the court wasn’t told how many cycles were used for the tourists’ tests.

The verdict referenced a study published by Oxford Academic in September on the correlation between 3,790 positive PCR tests and 1,941 SARS-CoV-2 isolates. The researchers found that at a cycle threshold of 25, the test was 70 per cent reliable, a figure that dropped to 20 per cent at 30 cycles, and just three per cent at 35 cycles. That meant 97 per cent were false positives, yet that was used “in most laboratories in the U.S.A. and Europe.”

The judges also concluded that, “however, and more relevantly, there is no scientific data to suggest that low levels of viral RNA by RT-PCR equate to infection, unless the presence of infectious viral particles has been confirmed by laboratory culture methods.”

Why all of this matters is best summed up by the words of Gian Luigi Gatta, a professor of criminal law at Italy’s Università degli Studi di Milano Statale. The judges quoted Gatta’s warning of a slippery slope for freedom:

“Today the emergency is called a coronavirus. We don’t know tomorrow. And what we do or don’t do today, to maintain compliance with the fundamental principles of the system, can condition our future. … The legislative turmoil generated around the containment of the spread of COVID-19 … can never harm the right to freedom and security and, ultimately, the absolute right to human dignity.”

Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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