file from aap.com.au
PCR inventor – who died in 2019 –
did not say his test won’t work for COVID-19 infections
22 July 2020
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A video on Facebook includes a claim that the inventor of the PCR test
– one of the main tests used to detect COVID-19 – said the tests do not work to
properly diagnose COVID-19 infections.
The video (1),
posted to a Facebook page called “NO CONSENT : For We Are Young and
Free”, features a man criticising a July 18 article (2) in The Australian
newspaper about COVID-19 conspiracy theorists.
The speaker reads a number of quotes
and attributes them to the inventor
of the PCR test, the late US biochemist Kary B Mullis. Among the attributed quotes is the following:
“PCR basically takes a sample of your cells and amplifies any DNA to
look for viral sequences, i.e. bits of non-human DNA that seem to match
parts of a known viral genome. The problem is the test is known not to
Another attributed quote is:
“the idea these kits can isolate a specific virus like COVID-19 is
The video has been viewed more than 3,100 times and attracted more than
120 comments since it was posted on July 18, 2020.
Similar claims about PCR testing have appeared online including here (3), here (4) and here (5).
The quotes attributed to PCR
test inventor Dr Kary B. Mullis (6)
are not from the Nobel Prize-winning American biochemist. The quotes
have appeared online with various attributions online since March,
2020. Dr Mullis died in August, 2019, (7) before the emergence of
the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The earliest example of the quoted
lines found by AAP FactCheck is an entry published between March
13 and March 18, (8)
according to internet archive Wayback Machine, on a website that claims
terrorist attacks such as 9/11 were staged. The lines on the website,
copied below, are identical to the purported
quotes read out in the video except for one omitted paragraph,
shown in bold. They are not
attributed to Dr Mullis but to an online commenter called
basically takes a sample of your cells and amplifies any DNA to look
for ‘viral sequences’, i.e. bits of non-human DNA that seem to match
parts of a known viral genome.
The problem is the test is known not
It uses ‘amplification’ which means
taking a very very tiny amount of DNA and growing it exponentially
until it can be analysed. Obviously any minute contaminations in the
sample will also be amplified leading to potentially gross errors of
Additionally, it’s only looking for
partial viral sequences, not whole genomes, so identifying a single
pathogen is next to impossible even if you ignore the other issues.
(Omitted: The Mickey Mouse test kits
being sent out to hospitals, at best, tell analysts you have some viral
DNA in your cells. Which most of us do, most of the time. It may tell
you the viral sequence is related to a specific type of virus – say the
huge family of coronavirus. But that’s all.)
The idea these kits can isolate a
specific virus like COVID-19 is nonsense.”
The page contents also appear, copied and pasted, in this Facebook post
(9) dated March
In addition to the original comments coming from an anonymous online
commenter, Dr Mullis died, aged 74, in August 2019, (10) four months before the
first signs of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China and six months
before the World Health Organisation named the disease (11) COVID-19, making it
impossible for the late doctor to have spoken about COVID-19.
The same “quotes” have appeared
elsewhere online, including on this site (12), presented as being
from “a widely respected professional scientist in the US” on a medical
Dr Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (13) in 1993 for his
invention of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) (14), a laboratory
method used to make a large number of copies of short sections of DNA
from a very small sample of genetic material, enabling specific genes
of interest to be detected or measured.
PCR testing is one of the two main tests used to detect a COVID-19
infection in Australia and has been approved (15) by the government’s
Therapeutic Goods Administration.
Dr Ian Mackay (16),
a virologist and adjunct associate professor with the University of
Queensland, told AAP FactCheck the claims read out about PCR testing in
the video show “an extreme lack of understanding of PCR, PCR test
design and use”.
One of the claims is that the process of DNA amplification, which grows
a tiny amount of DNA exponentially, can also amplify contaminants
leading to “potentially gross errors of discovery”.
Dr Mackay said laboratories have processes in place to account for and
prevent PCR contamination, including having controls to alert them if
contamination has occurred.
In response to the claim “the tests do not work”, Prof Mackay said the
tests are “extremely effective at very sensitively and specifically
“The leading tests have also been tested on SARS-CoV-2 RNA from
infected patients, isolated and grown in cells in the lab – so we know
it is this virus that we’re detecting,” he said.
“The tests detect the viral sequences we expect them to and not other
Regarding the claim in the video that it is “next to impossible” for
PCR testing to identify a single pathogen because it only looks for
partial viral sequences and not the whole COVID-19 sequence, Professor
Mackay said PCR tests are in fact designed to look at partial viral
“That is by design, not an error or an oversight. We have only been
able to quickly and relatively easily (compared to even a decade ago)
detect entire viral genomes – the science of genomics – in very recent
times. It is still costly, less sensitive and slower to determine the
entire sequence of a virus compared to detecting its presence using a
PCR test. And for cluster, outbreak, epidemic and pandemic control and
for patient management – detection the virus (which real-time PCRs do)
is all that is needed,” he said.
The Verdict [by AAP FactCheck]
Based on the evidence, AAP FactCheck found the Facebook post to be
false. The quotes in the video
are not from PCR test inventor Kary B. Mullis, who died in August 2019,
before the discovery of COVID-19. The claims instead appear to have
originated from an anonymous online commenter.
Claims about the effectiveness of PCR tests are incorrect. Virology
expert Professor Ian Mackay said the claims show “an extreme lack of
understanding of PCR, PCR test design and use” and that PCR tests are
“extremely effective at very sensitively and specifically detecting
False – The primary claims of
the content are factually inaccurate.
By AAP FactCheck
Copyright 2021 Australian Associated Press
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