On Thursday, a late-night tweet by Tesla founder and tech super-giant Elon Musk is sounding alarm bells across the country. Musk called into question the accuracy of four COVID-19 tests he took over the course of 24 hours. The question is: are the tests accurate? We looked into the tests Musk is decrying, and what his results may mean.
Musk Has Been a Skeptic Since the Beginning
Although Musk testing positive for coronavirus is new, his skepticism is not. Usually a science-minded individual, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a stark difference for Musk, who has been skeptical from the beginning. The Tesla founder has railed against stay-at-home orders designed to keep people safe, and questioned whether the pandemic is as serious as it’s made out to be by scientists in the field.
Per CNN, “The billionaire entrepreneur, heralded for years as a pioneer in space travel and transportation, has recently veered into disseminating coronavirus misinformation.
The Tesla (TSLA) and SpaceX founder has used Twitter to downplay the magnitude of the crisis and express frustration with how the pandemic has been handled. And he’s repeatedly urged the end of the stay-at-home policies, despite public health officials’ continued insistence that social distancing remains necessary to avoid a second wave of infections that could again overwhelm hospitals.
‘I would call it, ‘forcibly imprisoning people in their homes’ against all their Constitutional rights, in my opinion, and breaking people’s freedoms in ways that are horrible and wrong and not why people came to America or built this country,’ Musk said on the call. ‘It’s an outrage.'”
Musk also tweeted in support of hydroxychloroquine, a potential coronavirus treatment touted by Outgoing President Donald J Trump, which has now been proven to be ineffective.
CNN continues, “Later in March, Musk tweeted that there is an ‘up to 80% false positive rate’ in coronavirus diagnostic testing and that “many doctors are not treating patients, due to fear of giving or receiving” coronavirus. While there have been concerns about false negatives from coronavirus diagnostic tests — in other words, people who really do have the coronavirus are told they do not — it’s not clear that false positives are a significant concern.”
Thursday’s Tweets Continue the Theme of Doubt
Late Thursday, Musk tweeted, “Something extremely bogus is going on. Was tested for covid four times today. Two tests came back negative, two came back positive. Same machine, same test, same nurse. Rapid antigen test from BD.”
In the replies, Musk confirms that he’s experiencing mild, cold-like symptoms, which can be a hallmark of early or mild cases of COVID-19. Musk also replied, “If it’s happening to me, it’s happening to others. I’m getting PCR tests from separate labs. Results will take about 24 hours.”
What COVID-19 Tests is Musk Talking About, and How Accurate Are They?
Diagnostic tests for COVID-19 come in two forms: molecular and antigen tests. Musk claims he received four antigen, or rapid, tests. Then he was administered a more thorough PCR molecular test. CELEB turned to a reputable source to break down the differences.
Per Harvard Health:
“Molecular tests (also called PCR tests, viral RNA tests, nucleic acid tests):
How is it done? Nasal swabs, throat swabs, and tests of saliva or other bodily fluids.
Where can you get this test? At a hospital, in a medical office, in your car, or even at home.
What does the test look for? Molecular tests look for genetic material that comes only from the virus.
How long does it take to get results? It depends on lab capacity. Results may be ready the same day, but usually take at least a day or two. Throughout the pandemic, especially lately, delayed turnaround times of up to a week or two have been reported in many places.
What about accuracy? False negatives — that is, a test that says you don’t have the virus when you actually do have the virus — may occur. The reported rate of false negatives is as low as 2% and as high as 37%. The false positive rate — that is, how often the test says you have the virus when you actually do not — should be close to zero. Most false-positive results are thought to be due to lab contamination or other problems with how the lab has performed the test, not limitations of the test itself.”
How is it done? A nasal or throat swab.
Where can you get these tests? At a hospital or doctor’s office (though it is likely home testing will soon be available).
What does the test look for? This test identifies protein fragments (antigens) from the virus.
How long does it take to get results? The technology involved is similar to a pregnancy test or a rapid strep test, with results available in minutes.
What about accuracy? The reported rate of false negative results is as high as 50%, which is why antigen tests are not favored by the FDA as a single test for active infection. However, the FDA recently provided emergency use authorization for a more accurate antigen test. Because antigen testing is quicker, less expensive, and requires less complex technology to perform than molecular testing, some experts recommend repeated antigen testing as a reasonable strategy. According to one test manufacturer, the false positive rate of antigen testing is near zero.”
What Does This Mean About Musk’s Test Results and the Accuracy of COVID Testing?
Basically it means that Musk’s results are not surprising, and not outside of the normal and expected function of the tests. Because the rapid antigen tests can have such a high false negative rate, it’s not surprising to see several negative tests. However, a positive is a positive. Because both antigen and molecular tests have a nearly negligible false positive rate, if a test comes back positive, one can rest assured that the virus was detected even if a concurrent similar test fails to pick up the same result.
Musk’s PCR test results are likely to come back positive as well, since it’s a more in-depth and thorough way to scan for the virus’s presence in the body.
While Musk railing against accepted medical science in regards to COVID-19 is not new, his new claims come at a dangerous time for the US. As daily new cases surpass a staggering 150,000 a day, deaths are also on the rise. If people are to prevent spreading of the virus to vulnerable populations, they have to know when they’re positive and believe the tests so they can take responsible steps. If Musk and others continue to falsely call the results into question, it will lead to irresponsible public behavior, which the US can ill afford as the COVID-19 third wave is surging across the country.