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FactCheck: No, the WHO didn't say a positive Covid-19 test is more likely due to a cold

False claims on social media have inaccurately attributed a quote to the World Health Organization.

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SINCE THE START of Covid-19 testing, misinformation has been shared on social media around the effectiveness of the test and what the results from it mean.

Many of these false claims have centred around the idea that a PCR test for Covid-19 will give a positive result if the person has a different virus like a cold or a flu.

One recent claim is that the World Health Organization has “admitted” that a positive result from a Covid-19 is more likely to indicate a different disease such as the common cold. 

The Claim

The claim, which originated on Twitter and has been shared by Irish social media pages, says: “WHO Finally Admits, “Positive results more likely indicate ‘ordinary respiratory diseases like the common cold’.”

The account that posted the original tweet, which was shared on 19 December, appears to have been suspended from Twitter.

Since it was posted, screenshots of the tweet have been shared to other social media pages and seen thousands of times.

WHO cold claim A false claim posted to Twitter

The Evidence

The World Health Organization has not “finally admitted” that a positive Covid-19 test “more likely indicates ordinary respiratory diseases like the common cold”.

PCR testing involves taking a swab from a person’s throat and nose and using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique to see if the Sars-CoV-2 genetic material can be detected, which is the virus that causes Covid-19.

The method is recommended by the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and is a method in use around the world, including in Ireland.

The original tweet that made the claim linked to an article by a website called Principia Scientifica, which regularly publishes articles that try to dispute official sources on Covid-19.

The tweet’s claim that a positive Covid-19 test more likely indicates a common cold is a quote that features in the article, but it was not said by the WHO.

Rather, the article attributes the line about a positive Covid-19 test being triggered by a disease like the common cold to an entirely different webpage on another website.

The page the article links the quote to is titled “COVID Tests Scientifically Fraudulent, Epidemic of ‘False Positives’”, with the subheading “President Trump Must Take Immediate Action”.

This page appears on a website for the group Centre for Research on Globalization, which is known to spread conspiracy theories.

In August 2020, the US State Department published a report which found that the group’s website has been a source of “anti-US and anti-Western disinformation and propaganda” since it was set up in 2001.

The report identified previous instances of the website spreading disinformation about Covid-19, which were subsequently removed from the site.

The World Health Organization did not “finally admit” that a Covid-19 test is more likely to indicate a disease like the common cold.

Rather, the line in the claim has been pieced together from different websites that share unreliable information.

The WHO

Some posts sharing the claim have linked to a statement by the WHO from December to say the organisation admitted there was a problem with the tests.

The WHO statement is an information notice that advises users of nucleic acid testing (NAT) technologies, which are used in PCR testing, to be aware of products’ instructions for use.

It does not say that a positive result is more likely due to a common cold.

The start of the notice contains a list of basic information introducing it, which includes the product type the notice is referencing, the date of the notice, the WHO-identifier, the purpose of the notice, and the description of the problem.

The word “problem” has been taken by social media users and used to claim that the WHO had identified some kind of fatal flaw in the testing method. 

However, this is a format the WHO has used elsewhere for information notices, and doesn’t lend credence to false claims about the PCR test.

In this case, the description of the problem was that the WHO received user feedback of a higher risk of false Sars-CoV-2 results in some circumstances.

As a result, the WHO advised users to read instructions carefully, seek advice if any part of the instructions were not clear, check the instructions on each new consignment in case there were any changes, and provide information in reports on the cycle threshold value (the number of times the DNA taken in a sample is amplified so that it can be used to detect whether Sars-CoV-2 is present).

It advised users of the tests to consider both positive and negative results alongside other factors, such as the type of specimen, clinical observations, and patient history.

Chair of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group Dr Phillip Nolan, speaking on TheJournal.ie‘s The Explainer podcast in November, said that in Ireland, “all the time, the public health doctors would be looking at the evidence in front of them”.

“The results of the laboratory test is one thing, but what they know about the patient, what they know about their networks, what they know about other people who’ve been infected in the networks, allows them to put together a picture of why ‘I’ might have very high levels of the virus and a low cycle threshold and ‘you’ might have lower levels of the virus and a high cycle threshold, but it all makes sense when you put all those pieces of evidence together,” Dr Nolan said.

He explained: “A low cycle threshold suggests there was lots of virus, the person might be very infectious, and a high cycle threshold suggests that there’s less of the virus and either someone is very early on in their infection, so they’re shedding very little of the virus yet but they’ll go on in the next day or two to become quite infectious, or they’re at the end [of their infection].” 

Common colds

TheJournal.ie has previously factchecked claims around PCR testing, including the claim that a person with a cold or flu, or who has been vaccinated for other viruses the past, will test positive for Covid-19.

The claim seemed to emerge over confusion between PCR tests, which are viral tests that test for a current presence of the virus, and antibody testing, which test for antibodies against Covid-19 and can indicate that a person was previously infected with the virus. 

The PCR test for Covid-19 is specific, which means it is based on material that is unique to the virus. 

Professor Kingston Mills, a professor of experimental immunology in Trinity’s School of Biochemistry and Immunology, told TheJournal.ie that the viral test for current Covid-19 cases is “very, very specific” and that it’s “not going to pick up influenza or common cold virus”.

However, for antibody testing, some tests may not be properly validated – that is, the tests may have not undergone rigorous testing in a laboratory – and these ones may be less specific, which can result in a false positive if the person tested has created antibodies for an infection caused by a different type of coronavirus, which some colds are.

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Properly validated antibody tests test the specific antibody to Covid-19, and someone who is unvaccinated will only have antibodies to Covid-19 if they had the virus.

The Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) has previously warned the public about the potential risks involved in some antibody tests that have been commercially available.

“The HPRA is aware of several commercial tests for COVID-19 on offer in Ireland, which are not coordinated under the HSE and are not in line with the national testing strategy,” the HPRA said. 

Some studies of antibody testing have been carried out in Ireland, including among healthcare workers, but they are not officially accepted by the HSE for giving a diagnosis of Covid-19.

The HSE “only accepts PCR tests for diagnosing Covid-19″, which it says is “the most reliable way of testing”.

“Private companies can offer other types of tests. We do not recommend or endorse any particular test provider,” the HSE says. 

Suggestions that PCR testing is widely inaccurate, like this claim that said it gives a 97% false positive rate, are incorrect.

Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Dr Cillian De Gascun previously told TheJournal.ie that PCR testing, which the method used in Ireland, is “the most accurate test we have”

Speaking on Newstalk, De Gascun said that the testing system in Ireland produces a maximum of one false positive for every 500 tests carried out, and that in practice, the figure is likely even lower. 

The Verdict

The World Health Organization did not “finally admit” that a positive Covid-19 test “more likely indicates ordinary respiratory diseases like the common cold”.

A claim shared on social media has misattributed a quote to the WHO.

An article linked in the original tweet making the claim includes the quote, but it links it back to another website, not to the WHO.

The two websites are not official sources and have shared anti-Covid-19 theories in the past.

PCR testing is the method recommended by the WHO to test for Covid-19.

The test specifically looks for the presence of the virus that causes Covid-19 – SarsCoV-2 – not any other virus.

False positives do occur, but at a low rate – they are not the standard.

As a result, we rate the claim that the WHO said that a positive test for Covid-19 more likely indicates a disease like the common cold: FALSE.

As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim is inaccurate.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

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