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29 May 2020 7:11
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  •   Home > News > International

    'Complete inaccuracies': Viral Facebook post about COVID-19 tests debunked

    A post shared widely on Facebook, which screenshotted and annotated a government website to claim that COVID-19 tests cannot distinguish between COVID-19 and a cold, measles or ebola, has been debunked.

    CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check’s regular email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

    You can read the latest edition below, and subscribe to have the next newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

    CoronaCheck #19

    A couple of weeks ago we reported a story on Clive Palmer and his claim that the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine had been a major factor in the Australia's low number of COVID-19 deaths. He made that claim after announcing he'd bought 33 million doses of the drug to donate to Australia's medical stockpile. We've now fact checked that claim, and found it to be baseless.

    We've also looked at a claim made by Agriculture Minister David Littleproud that Australia has the "most secure food security in the world". We found that claim to be in the ballpark.

    Also investigated by us this week: a Facebook post attributed to the Department of Health claims common coronavirus tests can't distinguish COVID-19 from other illnesses. The Department told us that was incorrect.

    Facebook post about PCR tests contains 'complete inaccuracies'

    A post shared widely on Facebook and attributed to the Department of Health claims that tests for the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-COV-2, are not able to distinguish the virus from other illnesses.

    "It should be noted that PCR tests cannot distinguish between "live" virus and non-infective RNA," the post states.

    "This means the test cannot [distinguish] covid from a cold or measles or ebola."

    As Australian Medical Association ACT President Antonio Di Dio explained to the ABC in March, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests are the most widely used COVID-19 tests in Australia, and work by taking a "fingerprint" of RNA from a patient. 

    "In the context of COVID-19, you get a piece of the RNA from a swab of the patient, you double it, then again and again," Dr Di Dio said. "Until you have millions of copies."

    Within a few hours, the sample would be large enough to see whether COVID-19 is present.

    A caption alongside the Facebook post claims the information has been taken "from [the Department of Health’s] own website".

    In a statement, a department spokesman told RMIT ABC Fact Check the post contained "selectively chosen information taken out of context" from a factsheet for clinicians, along with "complete inaccuracies".

    "The factsheet is actually dealing with COVID-19 positive people continuing to test positive after the infectious period has passed," the spokesman said.

    "It is true that the PCR may still result in a positive test, because of remaining non-infectious viral load within the patient."

    He said the test would not detect any pathogen other than the SARS-COV-2 virus.

    Clive Palmer's baseless hydroxychloroquine claim

    Touted by some as a miracle cure for COVID-19, the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine was thrust into the spotlight again this week when US President Donald Trump revealed he was taking it to avoid contracting the illness. 

    The drug recently made headlines in Australia when outspoken businessman Clive Palmer donated almost 33 million doses — reportedly more than the equivalent of entire US stocks — to Australia’s national medical stockpile. In a series of newspaper ads and TV interviews, Mr Palmer claimed hydroxychloroquine was behind Australia’s low mortality rate, which he said had fallen since the drug was made available to treat hospitalised coronavirus patients in early April.

    But can Australia’s success be linked to the drug? Fact Check asked the experts and found Mr Palmer’s claim to be baseless. In fact, the drug was already available to hospital patients, and experts said the death curve had flattened because just a few weeks earlier the case curve had done the same.

    The jury is still out on whether the drug works as a treatment for COVID-19. However, the evidence isn't promising. Given the known risks of hydroxychloroquine, Australia's medicines regulatory body strongly advises against giving it to coronavirus patients in the absence of positive clinical trial results.

    David Littleproud is in the ballpark on food security

    It feels like ancient history, but for a time, just a few short weeks ago, supermarket shelves normally filled with toilet paper, pasta, flour and cleaning supplies were bare and the Prime Minister labelled the apparent cause, panic buying, "ridiculous" and "not sensible".

    Despite those scenes, federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud recently declared that Australia had "the most secure food security in the world".

    "We're a nation of 25 million people," Mr Littleproud told ABC Radio National's Afternoon Briefing program on May 11. "We produce enough food for 75 million."

    In a fact check published earlier this week, we found that claim to be in the ballpark.

    Many studies and experts say Australia enjoys a very high level of food security, exports far more than it needs and has ample alternative sources of certain foods should they become scarce.

    In terms of Australia's international ranking, we're not quite the most food secure nation but one comparison places us 12th among 113 countries in terms of food security.

    Twitter 'super spreaders'

    NewsGuard, a self-described "internet trust tool", has published a list of Twitter "super spreaders" — accounts that "repeat, share and amplify" coronavirus misinformation and myths to large numbers of followers.

    The 10 accounts listed by NewsGuard reach a combined 3.3 million followers and have continued to publish misinformation despite Twitter announcing a crackdown on March 18 in a bid to address the so-called "infodemic".

    Included in the list are the accounts of former Nigerian politician Femi Fani-Kayode, conservative radio commentator Bill Mitchell and former British footballer David Icke.

    The accounts have propagated myths including that COVID-19 does not exist and that zinc or herbal remedies can prevent or cure the virus, and are spreading unproven claims about the effect of 5G technology on the virus.

    Even more misinformation about Bill Gates

    Misinformation about Bill Gates and his involvement in global public health seems to spread exponentially with each passing day, with the billionaire tech founder and philanthropist the alleged 'villain' in a number of convoluted coronavirus conspiracy theories.

    This week, fact checkers at India Today found that a photo of Mr Gates and top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci apparently flaunting social distancing and face mask rules was taken in December 2018, long before the coronavirus outbreak.

    Another claim linking the men, which suggested that Dr Fauci served on Microsoft’s board of directors, was found to be false by AP Fact Check.

    Though not related to the coronavirus, a rumour has also been spread online that Mr Gates visited disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein's private island multiple times. That claim, too, is false, according to Reuters.

    Meanwhile, Politifact found that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was not set to make a profit from the development of a coronavirus vaccine, while Reuters found that Mr Gates did not present to the Pentagon a plan to immunise religious fanatics.

    Speaking of religion, Reuters also found Mr Gates had not advocated for the permanent banning of religious gatherings.

    Melinda Gates has also been the victim of online rumours, including a claim, debunked by Snopes, that she wore a satanic symbol during a TV interview.

    From Washington, D.C.

    US President Donald Trump this week claimed that he had been taking hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 preventative, prompting scorn from political adversaries including House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.

    "He's our president, and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and, shall we say, his weight group, [which] is morbidly obese, they say," Ms Pelosi told CNN.

    While her comments were met with glee by some, others have accused her of "fat shaming". But was her comment accurate?

    Not quite, according to fact checkers at PolitiFact, who found that based on figures from Mr Trump's latest physical examination he would not be considered "morbidly obese" by medical standards. Weighing in at 243 pounds (110 kilograms) and measuring 6 feet 3 inches (191 centimetres), Mr Trump just falls into the obese category.

    And while some pundits have questioned the official height and weight figures provided by Mr Trump, PolitiFact found that he would need to be shorter than 5 feet 8 inches (173 centimetres) and weigh 260 pounds (118 kilograms) to be classified "morbidly obese".

    Sites we recommend

    Got a fact that needs checking? Tweet us @ABCFactCheck or send us an email at

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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