PCR Test

The Imperial Graph that Shows Infections Declined Before Lockdown and Increased Under It

The above graph is the COVID-19 epidemic curve for England, reconstructed by Imperial College’s REACT antibody survey by asking those who tested positive in an antibody test when their symptoms began. I’ve added the start dates for lockdowns in red and the end dates in blue.

It’s a very useful graph because it does not involve any PCR tests at all, only lateral flow immunoassay tests, self-administered at home. This means it does not suffer from the problem of detecting non-infectious virus as it is not detecting virus at all but antibodies. (Its specificity is reported as 98.6%, giving it a 1.4% background false positive rate, which the researchers adjust for.) This means, for example, that the epidemic decline is much faster than in the familiar “case” curves, and the curves are more symmetrical.

What does it show? Here’s what I take from it. You might see more.

Firstly, it provides further evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was circulating at low levels in England throughout December 2019 and to some degree also in November. This fits with widespread anecdotal evidence of people falling ill with Covid symptoms in December. It doesn’t fit with the original official timeline of an outbreak beginning in Wuhan in December.

Secondly, despite circulating widely during the winter of 2019-20, SARS-CoV-2 did not undergo fast spread in England until the end of February. Indeed, the winter of 2019-20 was the least deadly on record in terms of age-adjusted mortality, despite SARS-CoV-2 being around and infecting people.

Then, around February 25th 2020, it suddenly launches into a three-week long spike of extraordinary exponential growth. This abruptly comes to an end around March 17th, and after a short plateau till around March 21st it enters just as extreme a decline. This is all ahead of the first lockdown on March 23rd of course.

The mystery is: what happened on February 25th (or thereabouts – we don’t know whether Imperial’s assumptions about the incubation period are exactly right) to cause a virus that had been circulating for at least three months at a low level suddenly to go bang and spread like wildfire? It wasn’t panic – no one was panicking at the end of February. Mobility levels were still normal until around March 12th. There was nothing unusual about the weather. Suggestions on this welcome in the comments below.

Fewer Than 1 in 200 Travellers From “Amber List” Countries Are Testing Positive for Covid

Thousands of holidays have been ruined by the Government placing countries – most recently, Portugal – on its travel “Amber List”, forcing travellers who didn’t cancel their plans to fork out for at least two PCR tests and to quarantine for 10 days upon their return. But new data shows that fewer than one in 200 travellers from Amber List countries are testing positive when back in Britain. This discovery has led to more calls for restrictions to be eased before more harm is done to the already battered travel industry. The Times has more.

An analysis of the latest figures from NHS Test and Trace, which are updated every three weeks, also shows no “variants of concern” were detected from any passenger returning from one of the 167 countries on the Amber List.

Only 89 of 23,465 passengers who travelled to the U.K. from these destinations between May 20th and June 9th tested positive for the coronavirus – a rate of 0.4%. There were no positive cases from 151 of these countries…

Nobody travelling from countries on the quarantine-free “Green List” – which includes 11 destinations at present – tested positive during the same period and there were no variants of concern found.

Last night Conservative MPs and travel experts said the data revealed that the border restrictions were too strict as they increased pressure on ministers to significantly expand the green list when they meet on Thursday.

They also said the data strengthened the case for allowing travellers who have had both jabs to be exempt from quarantine, a policy which a senior cabinet minister has appeared to support…

Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, said it was time ministers started to take advantage of Britain’s successful vaccine programme.

“Vaccination and testing are making international travel safer just as surely as they make things safer within our borders,” he said. “It’s time British people were able to reap the benefits of the vaccines and for us to get the travel industry moving again.”

Any easing of restrictions is likely to focus on those vaccinated against Covid (possibly just on those who have had both doses of a vaccine), leaving those who – for medical or other personal reasons – have not been vaccinated stuck at home.

Worth reading in full.

Cost of Covid Tests for Holidaymakers Still Too High, Says Travel Firm

When overseas travel returns this summer, holidaymakers – including those travelling to countries on the Government’s “green list” – will have to take at least one Covid test. Unfortunately, these don’t come cheap, with the average cost sitting at around £120 per person, per test. This, clearly, is enough to price out many families from holidays abroad. Competition between the companies offering PCR test kits is bringing prices down, but slowly. Randox, a firm based in Northern Ireland, has halved the cost of its kit to £60. Even then, testing costs will still add almost £250 to the holiday bill for a family of four (returning from a “green list” country).

The Chief Operating Officer at Hays Travel says that £60 is still too high and that the Government should step in to help make the cost of testing more manageable. Sky News has the story.

The cost of Covid tests for holidaymakers should be cut to £30 to encourage people to start travelling again, a boss at one of Britain’s biggest travel chains has told Sky News.

Jonathan Woodall, chief operating officer at Hays Travel, said that the current price of up to £200 for PCR tests was too high and will be a “barrier for customers” as restrictions ease next month.

He said the Government should help bring the cost down…

Industry figures including easyJet boss Johan Lundgren have said that the rule [on testing] threatens to price ordinary travellers out of returning to the skies.

Speaking to Sky’s Ian King Live, Mr Woodall said the cost of the tests would “cause a barrier” – especially for families looking at total bills of around £600 for the tests.

“We are hoping that Government will help us get those tests reduced,” he added.

Jonathan Woodall said that Randox’s price reduction was a step in the right direction but that the figure should be lower still.

From our point of view, we would like to see that price to be around £30, we think that would be acceptable…

It’s important that we can get our industry back to some normality, it’s important the customers can start to travel.

Worth reading in full.

Covid Testing Firm Cutting PCR Travel Test Cost to £60

A major UK Covid testing firm is set to halve the cost of its PCR test kit for travel to £60. This means that when overseas travel returns, testing costs will add almost £250 to the bill for a family of four (returning from a “green list” country) as opposed to almost £500 – a more feasible, yet still hefty sum. The Independent has the story.

Randox, based in Northern Ireland, says it will offer the test for just £60 to airline passengers – though the Independent understands negotiations are not yet complete.

At present international leisure travel from the UK is illegal. The Government has indicated it will allow overseas trips from May 17th – but says that all returning travellers must take at least one PCR test after arrival.

These tests, which require specialist equipment to analyse, typically cost £120 – representing almost £500 for a family of four.

The County Antrim firm is the first to announce a significant cut.

The Managing Director of Randox, Dr Peter FitzGerald, said: “In recognition of the needs of both the travel industry and the British public at this unprecedented time, Randox will reduce the all-inclusive cost of PCR testing for those in the UK undertaking international travel to £60 per test.

“We can see the pressures faced by both the travel industry and the general public and are committed to effective and economical testing to support holidaymakers and those undertaking international travel.” 

Even those travelling to “green list” countries on the Government’s “traffic light” system will have to take one test when returning to the UK, as the Telegraph recently reported.

Travellers who want to visit countries on the safe “green list” will still be expected to pay for gold standard PCR tests on their return to the UK…

People who have been fully vaccinated will still be required to take the PCR tests on or before the second day of their arrival back in the UK because of Government concerns that “green list” countries could still harbour new Covid variants.

Holidaymakers arriving from those countries will not have to spend any time in quarantine under the new traffic light system, which is expected to replace the current ban on foreign travel from May 17th.

The Independent’s report is worth reading in full.

Vast Majority of Positives in Schools Likely to be False

The “vast majority” of positives test results in schools are likely to be false, according to Jon Deeks, Professor of Biostatistics and head of the Test Evaluation Research Group at the University of Birmingham. The Telegraph has more.

Official data shows that the positive rate among secondary pupils is around 0.05 per cent, meaning there is a “high risk” that most rapid antigen tests carried out in secondary schools are false positives, according to Professor Jon Deeks.

Of the 3,867,007 lateral flow tests that were carried out on secondary pupils, just 1,805 were positive, according to the latest figures.

Health officials said that less than one in 1,000 results is a false positive overall. However, when the virus is on the wane, there is a higher likelihood of such results, as the number of true cases falls.

The positive case rate in schools equates to one in 2,142. At a rate of one in 1,000 false positives, from 3,867,007 tests you would expect 3,867 false positives.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The Department for Education updated its official guidance today to say that all positive lateral flow tests taken in schools should be followed up by a confirmatory PCR test. Previously, this was only the case for tests taken by students at home.

Panorama “Breaks” Story on Cross-Contamination in Lighthouse Lab Covered by Lockdown Sceptics Last November

Better late than never I suppose. Tonight’s episode of PanoramaUndercover: Inside the Covid Testing Lab – reveals that staff at the Lighthouse Lab in Milton Keynes have been cutting corners and processing samples in a way that could lead to cross-contamination between test samples. Readers will recall that Lockdown Sceptics published an expose of the very same lab – “Heath and Safety Breaches at the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab” – by an ex-member of staff in November of last year. BBC News has more.

A BBC reporter working as a lab technician, filmed staff cutting corners and processing samples in a way that could cause contamination.

This means some people who had taken a test via NHS Test and Trace may have received no result or a wrong result.

The lab said it had followed all necessary rules and regulations.

Evidence at the lab captured on film shows:

* Checks to ensure samples could be identified, were rushed, meaning tests were sometimes discarded unnecessarily

* Some test samples “glooped” across an area where other samples had been placed, risking contamination

* Swabs used by people to take Covid tests were left in their tubes when processed, presenting a further contamination risk

* A quality control scientist telling the reporter that the quality of the results progressively got worse throughout the day

The findings have led experts to question the way the lab was operating.

The story on BBC News uses the phrase “potential contamination”, but, incredibly, does not use the phrase “false positives”, as if the contamination could be in both directions, with some positive becoming false negatives after being contaminated with material from negative test swabs. Obviously, that isn’t possible. The contamination is all in one direction – negative samples being contaminated with material from positive swabs, thereby becoming false positives.

What this Panorama story tells us is that the number of cases reported by PHE in England during the pandemic, which is partly based on the findings of Lighthouse Labs like the one in Milton Keynes, has been inflated thanks to cross-contamination in the labs.

The BBC story is worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Dr Martin Evison, a retired Professor of Forensic and Biological Anthropology and occasional contributor to Lockdown Sceptics, has been in touch to comment on the BBC News story.

I don’t suppose this ‘news’ from the BBC will come as news to anyone who has worked on the PCR analysis of trace samples. It is exactly what one would expect from rushed high volume mass testing with limited and secretive verification.

The BBC article still hasn’t mentioned a key issue in relation to contamination – that is, the use of negative ‘blank’ controls. These should be included at key points in RNA extraction and analysis to establish that purification and PCR steps, test plates, manual or automated liquid handling and so on are free of intrusive SARS-CoV-2 RNA or derived DNA contamination. Blanks should be run regularly to measure background contamination in the laboratory or production line.

I made a futile attempt to find out what controls were being used via an FOI request some months ago, but didn’t get very far.

Judging by the article, it seems a decision was made just to accept an unknown amount of contamination for the sake of throughput in a way that would be unacceptable in forensic work, for example.

It does leave one wondering how much SARS-CoV-2 infection is really circulating when the positive test levels drop to their minimum and whether contamination could also be contributing to mis-classification of non-covid fatalities.

It’s interesting that this seems to be the first really critical and detailed science-related article the BBC have posted on the Government response to COVID. Why only now?

Government Regulations Add £360 to the Cost of a Trip to France

A reader has pointed out the additional costs suffered by British travellers to France because of Government regulations – specifically, the requirement to have three PCR tests at a minimum of £120 each.

If you want to come back from France to the UK you have to provide a negative PCR test. That costs a very reasonable € 15… in France 

But on your return to the UK, you have to undergo two more PCR tests, on day two and day five after you arrive. For some mysterious reason, the cheapest tests in the UK are £120(!) each from Boots (and ridiculous amounts more from other providers). Even the Boots “bargain basement” cost adds an outrageous £360 to the total cost of a trip to France, as, of course, you need a PCR test outward bound too!

My partner and I have written to our MP about this racketeering, but it’s obviously Government policy to deter people from going to deserted beaches abroad and to have them packed on British beaches instead.

We own a gîte in France and hate to think what our fully-booked summer will look like once a party of 10 realises that the Government has permitted £3,600 to be added to their bill!

If the Government sincerely wants to free us from our shackles, it should clamp down on this cynical profiteering and set up a simple system, as for the lorry drivers.

As Lord David Blunkett recently pointed out, travel restrictions imposed by the Government impact not only tourism (the topic which receives the most attention from the broadcast media) but also trade and aviation.

BBC Covid ‘Reality Check’ Needs a Fact Check of Its Own

In its latest “reality check” the BBC attempts to rebut seven of the “most frequently-shared” “false and misleading claims”.

It’s written by Jack Goodman, a “producer, newsreader and reporter at BBC Radio Derby”, and Flora Carmichael, a “journalist and producer with a strong track record of developing media partnerships and managing international projects and teams”.

So you can see why they would be well-qualified to set straight Oxford’s Professor Sunetra Gupta, Harvard’s Professor Martin Kulldorff, Stanford’s Professor Jay Bhattacharya and other eminent sceptics.

Let’s take each of the seven “myths” in turn.

1. “Here we are a year later – the world shut down for a 99.97% survival rate”

Verdict: This figure and similar figures being widely shared, are incorrect.

One recent estimate shows that overall, on average, about 99.3% of people who catch coronavirus survive it, according to statistics analysed by University of Cambridge.

That might not seem like a big difference, but it means that about 70 in 10,000 people are expected to die – not three in 10,000.

The death rate is much higher for older and more vulnerable people.

The “fact check” does not cite any sources for the claims it is debunking so it’s hard to know what the full context is. However, a search on Twitter brings up a number of recent tweets claiming that Covid has a 99.97% survival rate. While taken by itself this is not in line with current best estimates, a number of the tweets claim this is the survival rate once the over-65s have been vaccinated, though without citing a source. One tweet uses data from Minnesota to estimate a survival rate for the under-60s of 99.97%.

The BBC quotes 99.3% (IFR 0.7%) from the Cambridge MRC Biostatistics Unit, but it’s worth bearing mind that this is the same modelling team that produced the notorious projection of more than 4,000 deaths a day by the start of December, modelling which was already wrong on the day it was presented to the public by Witless and Unbalanced.

Professor John Ioannidis has estimated the global IFR for the WHO at 0.23% overall (survival rate 99.77%) and, for people under-70, 0.05% (survival rate 99.95%).

The BBC’s “fact-checked” IFR of 0.7% is therefore on the high side, and if the 99.97% claim refers to the under-60s (or to a scenario where all the over-60s have been vaccinated) then it would be within the ballpark of current data.

The wider point though is that the death rate has been greatly exaggerated, especially for those who are young and without underlying conditions. The median age of death with Covid is 83, and only 388 people under 60 with no underlying conditions died with Covid in English hospitals in 2020. Sweden, a country which did not implement strong restrictions (retail, hospitality and most schools remained open, there were no limits on private gatherings and no mask mandate) experienced only 1.5% excess age-adjusted mortality in 2020.

Lancet Paper Flagging Up Risk of Reinfection is Garbage

We’re publishing an original piece today by Mike Hearn, the former Google software engineer who is the author of this site’s most read piece. (He used to contribute under the name Sue Denim, but has since come out.) It’s a review of a recent paper in the Lancet purporting to show that 20% of Danes infected in Denmark’s first wave became reinfected in the second wave. As Mike reveals, this conclusion was based on assuming the false positive rate of the PCR test is much lower than the researchers had any reason to assume. Here are the first three paragraphs:

A recent paper in the Lancet claims that one in five people might not get immunity from being infected with COVID. The study is invalid. Although these sorts of problems have been seen before, this is a good opportunity to quickly recall why COVID science is in such dire straits.

The research has a straightforward goal: follow a population of Danish people who tested positive in Denmark’s first wave, and re-test them during the second wave to see if they became infected a second time. Denmark has a large free PCR testing programme so there is plenty of data to analyse. Out of 11,068 who tested positive in the first wave, 72 also tested positive during the second wave. This fact is used to advocate for vaccination of people who’ve already had COVID.

The obvious problem with this strategy is that false positives can cause apparent reinfection even when no such thing has happened. The paper doesn’t mention this possibility until page 7, where the entire topic is dismissed in a single sentence: “Some misclassifications by PCR tests might have occurred; however, the test used is believed to be highly accurate, with a sensitivity of 97·1% and specificity of 99·98%.” My curiosity was piqued by this figure because, as I’ve written about previously, at least as of June last year nobody knew what the false positive rate of COVID PCR testing is. The problem is circular logic: COVID is defined as having a positive test, therefore by definition it has no false positives, even though we know this cannot be true.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The New York Times reports on a new study showing that eight months after infection most people who have recovered from coronavirus still have enough immune cells to fend off the virus and prevent illness. A slow rate of decline in the short term suggests that these cells may persist in the body for a very, very long time to come.