Fact Check: WHO Tests For Coronavirus Do NOT Automatically Deliver False Positive Every Time

Fact Check

  • by: Eric Ferkenhoff
Fact Check: WHO Tests For Coronavirus Do NOT Automatically Deliver False Positive Every Time Bad Science

Is it true that the World Health Organization's test for COVID-19 contains a flaw that "should" deliver a false positive on every test, skewing data about the pandemic? No, that's not true. The claim, made by a conservation blogger with no apparent virology expertise, misunderstands the science of gene-based testing, according to WHO officials. Plus, the blogger's hypothesis fails to account for the fact that about 90% of the 800,000 daily U.S. tests came back negative as of August of 2020.

The claim appeared in an article (archived here) published by Piece of Mindful on April 6, 2020, under the title "BOMBSHELL: WHO Coronavirus PCR Test Primer Sequence is Found in All Human DNA." It opened:

This was important enough that I wanted to get it out immediately...As far as I can tell, this means that the WHO test kits should find a positive result in all humans. Can anyone explain this otherwise?

Here is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Screen Shot 2020-08-25 at 4.30.50 PM.png

The Bozeman, Montana, blogger is writing about a testing protocol -- provided to labs by WHO -- which relies on a polymerase chain reaction (PCR). That's a biochemical process designed to only to amplify certain genetic material if found on test swabs. The chain reaction makes virus DNA stand out so that it's easier to spot.

The Montana blogger, who describes himself as a wilderness conservation and wildlife advocate, goes on to say:

My research into the NCBI database for nucleotide sequences has lead to a stunning discovery. One of the WHO primer sequences in the PCR test for SARS-CoV-2 is found in all human DNA!

The sequence "CTCCCTTTGTTGTGTTGT" is an 18-character primer sequence found in the WHO coronavirus PCR testing protocol document. The primer sequences are what get amplified by the PCR process in order to be detected and designated a "positive" test result. It just so happens this exact same 18-character sequence, verbatim, is also found on Homo sapiens chromosome 8! As far as I can tell, this means that the WHO test kits should find a positive result in all humans. Can anyone explain this otherwise? I really cannot overstate the significance of this finding. At minimum, it should have a notable impact on test results.

Sebastian Oliel, a spokesman for the worldwide scientific and medical body, issued this statement to Lead Stories:

The statement: 'because of the DNA sequencing used in COVID testing, all results are manipulated to come out as positive', is totally untrue. [It] Is also inaccurate to state that 'WHO Coronavirus PCR Test Primer Sequence is Found in All Human DNA.'

Regarding the first statement, for a reaction to be positive, it is necessary that 2 primers and 1 probe...recognize the pathogen genome sequence...In this case, even if one of the primers matches with human DNA, the consequence is that this primer will be "sequestered" and then is not going to be available for the PCR reaction; therefore, the result (if the virus is indeed present) might be a false negative (low likelihood to happen), but not a false positive. If the virus is not present, the second primer and the probe will not recognize any sequence and then there will be no reaction."

A primer "is a short, single-stranded DNA sequence" used in PCR testing, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. What Oliel is saying is that the blogger is mistaken in assuming that one sequence is used in testing and will cause all tests to show a false positive. Actually, two are used in WHO's protocol, plus a probe to create special light when detection of the virus has been made.

WHO's Oliel said it's a multi-step process:

For a PCR to work it is necessary to have some basic components: 3 small pieces of DNA sequences (2 called primers and 1 more specific called probe). To be positive, these 3 components have to attach to the virus genetic material...even if one of these sequences recognize and attach human DNA, nothing is going to happen if the other 2 don't attach.

Moreover, WHO said there is no single "WHO Coronavirus PCR Test":

Starting by mid-January, different protocol (with different primers/probes designs) were released and all of them were available for the countries to implement. So far, there are more than 100 commercial options, based on several different protocols and combination of primers and probes.

The FDA explains testing this way:

Many companies and labs have developed tests to diagnose COVID-19 based on detection of the virus's genetic material in a sample from the patient's nose or throat. These steps may change as new technology becomes available, but currently the typical steps in molecular testing are:

1. A doctor, pharmacist, or other health professional orders a COVID-19 test. All COVID-19 tests, including those used with a home collection kit, require a prescription or order from a health professional.

2. You or a health care professional use a specialized swab to collect mucus from your nose or throat.

3. You or a health care professional put the swab in a sterile container and seal it for transport to a lab.

4. During the shipping process, most molecular test swabs must be kept within a certain temperature range so that the test will be accurate. The sample must arrive at the lab within 72 hours.

5. A lab technician mixes chemicals with the swab to extract the genetic material of any virus that may be on the swab.

6. The lab technician uses special chemicals, called primers and probes, and a high-tech machine to conduct several controlled heating and cooling cycles to convert the virus's RNA into DNA, and then make millions of copies of the DNA. Some tests use only one warming cycle to make copies of the DNA.

7. When DNA binds to specific probes, a special type of light is produced that can be seen by the machine and the test shows a "positive" result for infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The Montana blogger is simply copying the National Center for Biotechnology Information page as evidence of his "finding" and includes the following graphic as proof:


The primers and probes chart is from a page on WHO's website.

The Montana blogger's post has led to a video making the same claim on YouTube with a story titled "Bombshell Evidence that COVID RNA Base Pairs are Identical to Chromosome 8 Human DNA." Here is the video, posted August 20, 2020, by YumNaturals Emporium, which is described on the About page on YouTube as:

In the video, the health food store operator claims at the top that the information from the article lends to existing research:

to help you understand the overarching situation that has been in the works for hundreds of years...control the population genetically, modify people, and it's a very specific eugenics agenda."

The video, lasting more than 21 minutes, provides no further evidence to support the Bozeman blogger's claim that the existence of a single sequence common to humans means coronavirus tests "should" show all positives.

Clearly, this is untrue based on the simple fact that not all tests produce positive results. The following, updated August 28, 2020, is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing a small percentage of those tested actually test positive:

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 2.36.29 PM.png

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.

  Eric Ferkenhoff

Managing Editor Eric Ferkenhoff has been a reporter, editor and professor for 27 years, working chiefly out of the Midwest and now the South. Focusing on the criminal and juvenile justice systems, education and politics, Ferkenhoff has won several journalistic and academic awards and helped start a fact-checking project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he continues to teach advanced reporting. Ferkenhoff also writes and edits for the juvenile justice site JJIE.org.


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