Is Elon Musk right that rapid COVID testing is ‘extremely bogus’?


Fact Box

  • As of November 13, there have been 10.9 million coronavirus cases in the United States, with 248,890 reported deaths. 
  • There are three types of covid tests: PCR molecular tests, antigen tests, and antibody tests. Molecular tests (RNA or PCR tests) are known to be the most accurate. 
  • On November 12, Elon 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.” 
  • The FDA has warned lab clinicians that “false positive results can occur with antigen tests, including when users do not follow the instructions thoroughly.” The tests must be read in a distinct time frame to be accurate.

Andrew (No)

This latest outburst from Tesla CEO Elon Musk is just the latest in a series of unhelpful tweets expressing skepticism over the pandemic. Musk, who often Tweets recklessly, has previously cost his company billions and found him in the SEC's crosshairs. After claiming to have been tested four times in the same day on the same machine by the same nurse, Musk is right; 'something extremely bogus is going on.' Why is he being tested in this way unless he is looking for problems? Musk is not a public health or infectious disease expert, so he should leave the advice-giving on whether or not testing is effective to those with the expertise to make such decisions.

Rapid coronavirus testing has proven to be very accurate, with some studies showing an accuracy of 99.6%. Rapid testing, which has been vetted by experts as accurate and safe, can quickly identify the infected and possibly even asymptomatic individuals.

For society to effectively handle the virus, we need the public to be behind rapid testing. When high profile individuals like Elon Musk Tweet out this kind of borderline conspiracy theory material, they risk damaging the public trust in testing. There are any number of reasons why Musk's alleged tests could have come back with mixed results. Perhaps it was operator error, or maybe he had a bad batch of tests. Perhaps his antibodies were right on the cusp of the detectable level. A better use of Musk's considerable means would be to investigate why he experienced this situation rather than tweet out potentially misleading information to his many followers.

Bill (Yes)

Elon Musk was right to characterize rapid COVID testing as 'extremely bogus.' He reported Thursday he'd been tested four times in one day and received two positive and two negative results from the same type of rapid antigen test. It's useful to understand the economics of positive COVID test results. If a person admitted to a hospital is tested positive—whether or not COVID-19 was the reason they sought treatment—the hospital reporting the COVID diagnosis receives a $13,000 federal reimbursement. The CDC reports antigen tests to have an accuracy rate of 84–98%. In the over 10.5 million COVID cases reported, as many as 1.7 million cases may have been misreported. If one assumes the low end of the range cited above (with 2% false results) and then assigns a 50% chance of the false result being positive, it still means a windfall to hospitals of $1.4 billion.  

Perhaps more insidious is the fact that states are using positive COVID test results as a pretext for imposing draconian lockdown measures. Lockdowns have devastated small businesses by limiting their overall clientele capacity to abide by physical distancing guidelines. Shorter hours of operation has resulted in thousands of business closures and layoffs across the country since the onset of the pandemic. And the individual rights of citizens (freedom of assembly, freedom to travel, freedom to decide whether or not to wear a mask, etc.) have been severely limited. Additionally, states require restaurants and hotels to collect contact tracing information. The implications of the government's overreach into private citizens' personal choices are terrifying. Musk was right to sound the alarm.

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