CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check’s weekly email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
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In this week’s CoronaCheck, we debunk viral misinformation about the PCR tests used to identify COVID-19 cases, which ramped up after a Victorian news conference.
We also examine Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s claim that his “it’s not a race” comments were not made in relation to the pace of Australia’s vaccine rollout, and look at how a news conference slip-up led to a rush of misinformation about COVID-19 hospitalisations in the current NSW outbreak.
News conference question gives new life to PCR test misinformation
As Victorian authorities announced an easing of lockdown restrictions on Tuesday, the state’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, was questioned by a journalist about the accuracy of PCR tests used to identify COVID-19 cases.
“The US [Centers for Disease Control] has found that PCR tests can’t distinguish between the flu and COVID,” Professor Sutton was asked. “Are we looking at that? Are we concerned about that?”
In response, Professor Sutton explained that it wasn’t “really an issue”.
“If someone tests positive, [the test] will go through a quality assurance process to make sure that it’s absolutely and unequivocally a positive test,” he said.
“I’ve heard nothing from our reference laboratories that our PCR tests do anything other than pick up, with enormous sensitivity, the COVID virus.”
By Tuesday afternoon, the question, and Professor Sutton’s response, had prompted an onslaught of misinformation.
Reignite Democracy Australia, a popular anti-mask, anti-lockdown and COVID-19 conspiracy group with more than 65,000 Facebook followers, shared an image of Brett Sutton captioned: “PCR tests can’t distinguish between the flu and COVID. Brett Sutton doesn’t think that’s a problem.”
A similarly captioned video of the news conference was also shared online and viewed by Fact Check on four separate social media platforms.
Both the original question — and subsequent social media misinformation — appear to be based on a misunderstanding of an official CDC document.
According to a July 21 “lab alert” directed at groups performing COVID-19 testing, the CDC had announced that it would be withdrawing its request to the US Food and Drug Administration for an Emergency Use Authorisation of the “CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel”.
The alert suggested that labs begin using tests which “can facilitate detection and differentiation of SARS-CoV-2 and influenza viruses”.
However, the alert has been wrongly interpreted by many as an “admission” that all COVID-19 tests fail to distinguish between COVID-19 and the flu.
“Is this an admission that the COVID-19 tests used in Australia can’t tell the difference between COVID-19 and influenza? Or that they are the same thing? Or the tests just don’t work at all? Maybe all of the above,” one widely shared Facebook post of an Australian law firm reads.
But as Stevie Zhang, a research reporter at First Draft, explained on Twitter, the CDC announcement did not mean that PCR tests were unable to differentiate between COVID-19 and the flu.
“As the US heads into flu season, they want to save time and resources by using a test that can detect multiple viruses,” Zhang said. “Currently the PCR nose swab *only* tests for COVID-19 and nothing else.”
A CDC spokeswoman quoted by FactCheck.org echoed this reasoning, explaining that the alert applied only to the PCR test developed early in the pandemic to test explicitly for COVID-19.
“The demand for this test has declined with the emergence of other higher-throughput and multiplexed assays,” she said, adding that the CDC was encouraging labs to use more nuanced tests.
Meanwhile, in Australia, Nobel prize-winning immunologist Peter Doherty tweeted in relation to the reporter’s question to Professor Sutton: “The COVID-19 PCR test discriminates SARS-CoV-2 from any other virus, including all human CoVs.”
Were Scott Morrison’s ‘it’s not a race’ comments taken out of context?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been accused of “trying to reinvent history” during a media blitz in defence of Australia’s much-criticised vaccine rollout.
“It’s unfortunate that the comments Professor [Brendan] Murphy and I made have been used in the way they have. We were talking about how cautious we needed to be when it came to the approval of vaccines for use in Australia,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.
“But I know how politics works and I know how people use things out of context and about what you say.”
He continued his defence in an interview with Channel Seven’s Sunrise program yesterday. “[W]e were talking about the regulation of the vaccines. I’m not sure people are aware of that.”
In February, the Prime Minister defended the Therapeutic Goods Administration against accusations of a slow approval process for the AstraZeneca vaccine compared to other countries, stating the regulator’s approach was timely and did not cut corners.
However, an examination of Mr Morrison’s comments since then shows the Prime Minister’s use of the phrase “not a race” was in response to criticism of the sluggish rollout long after the vaccines had been approved.
During a March 11 news conference, Mr Morrison said the government was working towards having Australians fully vaccinated by October.
“It’s not a race. It’s not a competition for the sake of people’s health — you get it right. And that’s exactly what we’re doing and, where we are, our October deadline is the one we’re absolutely working to — there’s no change to that,” he said.
“It’s important for all states and territories to be on pace with this. It’s not a race; it’s not a competition,” he said in response to questions about the delay to Phase 1A of the vaccine program.
More recently, during parliamentary question time on June 3, the Prime Minister said he stood by his remarks and claimed his comments on a vaccine race were echoing similar statements made at the time by Professor Murphy, the secretary of the Department of Health.
However, Professor Murphy’s comments about Australia not being in a race were also made in reference to the speed of the vaccine rollout.
“This is not a race. We have no burning platform in Australia,” he said during a joint news conference with Mr Morrison on March 10.
“We are taking it as quickly and carefully and safely as we can. We’re not like the US or the UK or most other countries in the world where they’ve got people in hospital dying. We can take our time, set up our systems, do it safely and carefully, we are expanding our rollout every day.”
The Prime Minister’s office did not respond to questions.
Misinformation spreads after NSW health official’s gaffe
A video showing the director of health protection at NSW Health, Jeremy McAnulty, announcing “all but one” of more than 40 COVID-19 patients in intensive care had been vaccinated has been shared widely online.
In the video, which was taken from the state’s daily COVID-19 news conference last Sunday, Dr McAnulty says that of the 43 people in intensive care “all but one are vaccinated; one person has just received one dose of vaccine”.
What the video fails to capture, however, is Dr McAnulty later adding that he had misspoken and correcting the record.
“Of the 43 people in intensive care units, 42 have not been vaccinated [and] one person had just one dose of vaccine,” he clarified.
Online, the video has been shared among anti-vaccination communities in order to cast doubt on the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines, with some going as far to suggest a government conspiracy.
“You are being lied to and gaslit 24/7,” one Twitter user wrote alongside the clip of Dr McAnulty’s gaffe.
“This is proof. Buried under a mountain of terrifying ‘statistics’ is the only one that matters. ALL of these very sick people ARE VAXXED. Vaxxed getting MORE sick than unvaxxed. Give your head a shake!”
Among those who shared the clip was social media influencer Taylor Winterstein. Known online as ‘Tay’s Way’, Ms Winterstein has 73,000 Instagram followers and came under fire from the Australian Medical Association in 2019 for her views on vaccination.
Former Australian senator Cory Bernardi also posted on Twitter a link to the video on web-sharing platform Rumble, which has come under criticism for aiding in the spread of misinformation.
While both Mr Bernardi and Ms Winterstein later conceded that Dr McAnulty had corrected the record, Mr Bernardi’s original post remains live and Ms Winterstein has alleged that the correction constituted “backpedalling” and a “cover-up” by the NSW government.
From Washington, D.C.
Joe Biden last week took part in his second town hall appearance as US President, fielding questions from both a CNN reporter and citizens of Cincinnati, where the event was held.
According to the Post, President Biden’s claim that “you’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations” was not accurate, as some people who are inoculated against COVID-19 can still be infected in so-called “breakthrough cases”.
“Doctors say the symptoms are generally milder for breakthrough cases of COVID-19, because the body’s acquired immunity is still able to tamp down the worst of the disease,” the fact checkers added.
They noted, however, that Mr Biden later made a more accurate claim about vaccine effectiveness when he said that of 10,000 people who had recently died from COVID-19, 9,950 of them were unvaccinated.
The Post also found that on multiple measures it was incorrect for Mr Biden to claim that the cost of a car in the US was “kind of back to what it was before the pandemic”.
“The consumer price index for new and used cars in US cities was 20 per cent higher last month compared with February 2020, the last month before the US economy went into a pandemic-induced recession for three months,” they explained.
“Measuring from June 2019 to June 2021, the increase in car prices is also 20 per cent.”
CNN, meanwhile, took aim at Mr Biden’s suggestion that either 600,000 or 6 million people (he admitted he needed to “check the number”) were affected by non-compete agreements that restrict workers’ abilities to leave their jobs for work at other companies.
In reality, the number is far higher: between 30 million and 60 million people, according to official White House estimates.
In other news: Has the cost of visiting the doctor gone up 30 per cent under the Coalition?
With a federal election on the horizon, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has attacked the Coalition’s record on Medicare funding, claiming in a tweet that “it costs 34 per cent more to see your doctor today than it did when the Liberals came to power”.
Fact Check this week found that claim to be misleading.
In more than seven years of Coalition government, the average out-of-pocket cost for GP visits for those patients who are charged fees increased by 38 per cent.
However, more than 66 per cent of patients pay nothing at all to visit their GP, according to Department of Health data from 2018-19.
Bulk-billed services, or those that cost patients nothing, account for the vast majority of GP services, with bulk-billing rates increasing under the Coalition, as Fact Check recently explained.
Critically, experts consulted by Fact Check said increases in out-of-pocket costs could not be attributed to any one government, with these having trended higher since at least the early 1990s.
Moreover, Mr Albanese’s focus on a simple percentage change does not account for how long the Coalition has been in power.
In annual terms, the cost to visit a GP grew by an average of 4.3 per cent under the Coalition. That compares with 8.9 per cent annually under the last Labor government.
And while for much of the Coalition’s time in office rebates for GP visits were “frozen” at 2015 levels, experts told Fact Check there was limited evidence at the national level to show that this freeze had led to higher out-of-pocket costs for patients.
Edited by Ellen McCutchan, with thanks to Ellen Blake, Eiddwen Jeffery and Jude Ellison