Open Letter: Refuting Politifact’s “fact check”

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On the 27th of June OffGuardian published an article by Torsten Engelbrecht and Konstantin Demeter titled “COVID19 PCR Tests are Scientifically Meaningless”, on July 7th Politifact published a “fact check” response to this article, without contacting either OffGuardian or the authors for comment. Below is the author’s response, an email to which no member of the PolitiFact team has yet responded.

Dear Angie Drobnic Holan, Daniel Funke & Aaron Sharockman

My name is Torsten Engelbrecht and I am journalist in Hamburg, Germany. On July 7, you claim in a piece that my OffGuardian article “COVID19 PCR Tests are Scientifically Meaningless” (co-authored by Konstantin Demeter) is “inaccurate.”

Unfortunately, your piece is unsubstantiated from start to finish. This is a very serious issue, not least because Facebook has flagged our article as false news. To clarify this issue please answer the following questions (at least in short):

1. You claim that our assertion that “The existence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA is based on faith, not fact” is “inaccurate.” To compare the DNA of the alleged father and the child one must ensure that the DNAs are extracted from the bodies of the alleged father and the child. This entails forensic precautions to identify two separate individuals prior to obtaining their blood or other tissue samples for analysis. The same standard applies to the identification of virus particle RNA and proteins.

When cells, cellular debris and particles are mixed in a culture, the only way of determining which RNA and proteins are viral is by separation of the particles from all the non-viral material. In a paternity suit the genome can be obtained from a single “particle” (father/child).

However, since the viral genome cannot be procured from a single particle, one must obtain it from a large mass of identical, that is, purified particles. Or at least material that does not contain extraneous RNA. This is an extremely simple concept readily understood even by the layman.

That is to say, if there is no evidence for purification (as we outline in our OffGuardian article), how is it possible to claim that the RNA obtained is a viral genome?

How can such RNA be widely used for the diagnosis of infection with a new virus? And then, how can the PCR test be “eminently suitable for viral detection”?

2. You claim that our “article is inaccurate” because “polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are among the most common and reliable ways to test for the coronavirus.”

Do you really want to say that “common” is proof for accuracy?

As outlined in our article, so-called SARS-CoV-2 PCR tests are meaningless because…

  • … there is no proof that they are “calibrated” with a sequence coming from the genome of a new pathogenic virus, because such virus has never been purified.
  • … they do not have a valid gold standard to compare them with.
  • … in April the WHO changed the algorithm, recommending that from then on a test can be regarded as “positive” even if just the E-gene assay gives a “positive” result; but according to Corman et al. (who developed the assay) propably reacts positive to all Asian viruses (see point 3.3 as well)*
  • … many tests have a Cq well above (up to 45) of what is regarded as reliable in the MIQE guidelines.

In which ways are these statements wrong?

3. To back your claim you are citing a fact sheet of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying “the test is ‘designed to detect the virus that causes COVID-19 in respiratory specimens, for example nasal or oral swabs.’”

Why should a statement of the CDC be evidence that anything is factually correct? Do you have complete faith in what the CDC says?

In our article we cite instruction manuals of RT-PCR tests which say exactly the opposite, among them the “CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel” file in which it says:

Detection of viral RNA may not indicate the presence of infectious virus or that 2019-nCoV is the causative agent for clinical symptoms.”

Does that not contradict what you claim?

Why does the CDC test, as well as all others, have a “Research Use Only” approval if they supposedly are so reliable?

As we also mention in our article, on April 4 2020 the WHO officially advised that all tests using the E-gene assay (which usually is one of two or three assays used in many tests) should be regarded as positive even if just the E-gene assay resulted positive.

But how can one draw that conclusion when one considers alone that the E-gene assay likely detects all Asian viruses, as stated in Corman et al., for example?

4. As outlined in our article:

Another essential problem is that many PCR tests have a ‘cycle quantification’ (Cq) value of over 35, and some, including the ‘Drosten PCR test’, even have a Cq of 45… The inventor himself, Kary Mullis… stated: ‘If you have to go more than 40 cycles to amplify a single-copy gene, there is something seriously wrong with your PCR.’… In a recent podcast interview [Stepehn. A.] Bustin points out that… a Cq in the 20s to 30s should be aimed at and there is concern regarding the reliability of the results for any Cq over 35.”

So how can so-called SARS-CoV-2 PCR tests be “not scientifically meaningless,” as you claim, if they have a Cg of over 35 or even 45?

5. You claim that our assertion that inventor of the PCR test, Kary Mullis, “regarded the PCR as inappropriate to detect a viral infection” is “false.” And to back this claim you write:

In a fact-check, Reuters rated that claim false — the source is a 1996 article about HIV/AIDS. It does not say PCR tests are ineffective for detecting viruses.”

How can a so-called “fact-check” by Reuters based on a 1996 article as source show that our assertion about Mullis is false when the source of the mentioned statement in our article is not the source your quoted Reuters piece is based on (which is the 2020 article “The Corona Simulation Machine: Why the Inventor of The ‘Corona Test’ Would Have Warned Us Not To Use It To Detect A Virus” written by Celia Farber)?

We write that Kary Mullis “regarded the PCR as inappropriate to detect a viral infection,” while you claim that the Reuters piece on which your claim is based on “does not say PCR tests are ineffective for detecting viruses.”

But “to detect a viral infection” and “to detect viruses” are not the same thing.

This also shows how imprecise your reasoning is. You don’t seem to know that to detect a viral infection, you need to find millions and millions of viral particles, not just one or a few viruses or fragments of them.

And the Reuters piece you are referring to states very well and clearly what we write, that Mullis said that “the PCR as inappropriate to detect a viral infection” because in the Reuters article it says [emphasis added]:

PCR is intended to identify substances qualitatively, but by its very nature is unsuited for estimating numbers. Although there is a common misimpression that the viral load tests actually count the number of viruses in the blood, these tests cannot detect free, infectious viruses at all.”

So why is it not correct to state that Kary Mullis “regarded the PCR as inappropriate to detect a viral infection”?

Against this background we also state in our article that the term “viral load” is deception” and also that the experiment “to prove beyond any doubt that the PCR can measure how much a person is ‘burdened’ with a disease-causing virus…has not yet happened.”

Do you know of any such solid experiment?

6. You claim that we lay “out several (inaccurate) theories about PCR tests. None of them prove that the tests are ‘scientifically meaningless.’” But in fact, we lay out technical facts.

Which “inaccurate theories” are you referring to?

7. You claim that our assertion that “There are no distinctive specific symptoms for COVID-19” is “inaccurate.”

Which are the distinctive specific symptoms for COVID-19 that has never been observed in another known disease?

8. You claim that in our OffGuardian article we make

several…inaccurate claims…including:… Between 22% and 77% ‘of the ‘positive’ tests are false ‘positives.’ Currently, about 92% of tests in the United States produce negative results.”

In contrast to your claim, we never stated that “Between 22% and 77% ‘of the ‘positive’ tests are false ‘positives.’” Instead, we just cited two hypothetical scenarios presented in the orthodox publication Ärztezeitung.

Would you rate their article as “Pants on Fire” as well?

If yes, what exactly is wrong with the calculation of the Positive Predictive Value with the different scenarios presented by the Ärztezeitung?

One scenario outlined in the Ärztezeitung using a prevalence of 20% is most probably higher than the prevalence of what is called SARS-CoV-2 in the general population. Hence, presuming a specificity of 95%, a false positive rate of 22% would be more than realistic. Don’t you think so?

Why are you are confusing the “positive rate” with the “positive predictive value”, i.e. inversely the percentage of the false positives among all the positive results, the latter being 8% in your source?

9. In our OffGuardian article we write:

Moreover, among other factors that can alter the result, before starting with the actual PCR, in case you are looking for presumed RNA viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, the RNA must be converted to complementary DNA (cDNA) with the enzyme Reverse Transcriptase… But this transformation process is “widely recognized as inefficient and variable, as Jessica Schwaber from the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine in Toronto and two research colleagues pointed out in a 2019 paper. Stephen A. Bustin acknowledges problems with PCR in a comparable way.”

Doesn’t this alone seriously undermine the validity of the tests?

10. As an argument for the fact that our article in which we outline that COVID19 PCR tests are scientifically meaningless is incorrect, you also state that “Health care providers have also used them for detecting viruses like HIV.”

But in fact, the PCR test is not sufficient to detect an HIV infection, so why should it be good enough to detect a SARS-CoV-2 infection?

11. You claim the “OffGuardian has a track record of publishing conspiracy theories.”

Are you not aware of the fact that the term “conspiracy theory” has been introduced by the CIA in 1967 with the sole purpose of discrediting politically unpopular views?

Why do you use this term which is nothing else than an ad hominem reasoning instead of focussing on what is factualy right or wrong?

12. You write, “There are three main coronavirus tests: diagnostic, antibody and antigen. Diagnostic tests, also known as PCR tests,…” This is not correct.

Didn’t you know that any test to determine the cause of a disease is a “diagnostic test”–and that PCR tests are also called “molecular tests” (and that to say that “diagnostic tests are also known as PCR tests” is not correct)?

13. At the very beginning of your article you write “Bloggers stated on June 27, 2020 in an article.”

How do you get round naming us “bloggers”?

I am first of all a journalist, and my co-author Konstantin has never acted as blogger. And this term “blogger” has not been mentioned in the brief curriculum vitae on our OffGuardian article, either!

[NB. This question was added in a follow-up email sent a few days later – ed.]

… please allow me to add another question:

14.How can you deliver unbiased results if you are financed by major corporations such as Facebook or the The E.W. Scripps Company (see here) and if even the Poynter Institute which acquired you in 2018 cannot, with all the will in the world, be described as unaffected by major capital interests (see here)?

I am looking forward to receiving your answers.

Best wishes,
Torsten Engelbrecht

This e-mail was originally sent on the 23rd of July, with a follow up on the 28th. Since then, neither OffGuardian nor the author have received any reply.

*This sentence is amended for the sake of clarity, and slightly different from the version in the original email.^

Open Letter: Refuting Politifact’s “fact check”