STUDY: Covid tests could be picking up DEAD virus cells from old infections, exaggerating pandemic numbers

Coronavirus tests could be picking up dead virus cells from weeks’ old infections, study finds, meaning ‘false positives’ could lead to an exaggeration of the current scale of the pandemic.  

Despite coronavirus only being infectious for around a week, the tests used to diagnose the disease could still show a positive reading for weeks after the end of a patient’s illness.

Experts don’t know how to produce a reliable test without potentially missing cases but Professor Carl Heneghan, one of the study’s author’s, suggested a cut off point so low amounts of virus do not give a positive result.

He told the BBC coronavirus ‘infectivity appears to decline after about a week’ and added false positives could be the reason case numbers are on the rise while hospital admissions fall.

Some 25 studies where virus specimens from positive tests were put in a petri dish to see if they would grow were studied by the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.  

This ‘viral culturing’ can show if the positive test has picked up active virus which can reproduce and spread, or just dead virus fragments which won’t grow in the lab, or in a person.

Public Health England said it is currently working with labs to find a solution, including where the ‘cycle threshold’, or cut-off point, should be. 

Prof Ben Neuman, at the University of Reading, warned the potential for false positives should not be compared to the ‘likelihood that it will spread’.

And there is disagreement between researchers over how long the virus remains able to infect others.

Prof Francesco Venturelli, an epidemiologist in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, which was hit hard by the virus in March, said there was ‘not enough certainty’ over how long the virus is infectious.

Prof Peter Openshaw at Imperial College London said he was of the impression patients were ‘very unlikely to be infectious beyond day 10 of disease’. 

It comes as two-thirds of new coronavirus infections in the UK are in the under-40s, while the rate among older people has fallen sharply in an ‘extraordinary’ shift.

The number of over-50s testing positive for Covid-19 now represents just a fifth of those nationwide, compared with three quarters in the spring.

Just three per cent are now made up of those over 80, down from 28 per cent six months ago, reported The Times.

The peak age range for infections is now in the 20s but for most of the pandemic it was in the 80s – sparking hope further restrictions can be reduced because it seems older people are voluntarily shielding.

One Government adviser has suggested a Swedish-style effort to keep workplaces open while advising older people to stay at home. 

Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh, who sits on the government’s SPI-M modelling group, said ‘the epidemic is starting to divide’ people by age.  

Ministers have spoken out against plans to ask people to shield based on their age and are worried if infections are allowed to rise in the young it will eventually spread to more vulnerable members of society.

Especially after France reported a rise in hospital admissions just weeks after cases in young people increased.

Last week 2,042 cases were confirmed in people in their twenties, more than ten times the number among over-80s. 

Professor Dame Anne Johnson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology, [ … ]

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