Fact Check: COVID Testing Definition Was NOT Changed To Find Millions Of New Omicron Cases

Fact Check

  • by: Ed Payne
Fact Check: COVID Testing Definition Was NOT Changed To Find Millions Of New Omicron Cases Omicron Real

Was the definition of what constitutes a positive COVID-19 test changed to include the omicron variant? No, that's not true: The variant (SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529) was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on November 24, 2021. And while one widely used COVID PCR test sometimes misses one of the three key target genes, such a result can still be used to indicate the need for further testing to confirm a patient's status. It is not counted as a positive test.

The claim appeared in a Facebook post (archived here) on December 13, 2021, under the title "Check out the steps that led to the 'discovery' of the Omicron variant." It opened:

Check out the steps that led to the 'discovery' of the Omicron variant. For more information on this anti-science, please read the excellent paper by Dr. Mark Bailey, husband of our friend Sam Bailey: https://bit.ly/320nZZK

This is what the post looked like on Facebook on December 14, 2021:Facebook screenshot

Dr. Tom.png

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Dec 14 21:32:42 2021 UTC)

The Facebook post by Dr. Tom Cowan, a retired general practitioner who surrendered his medical license to California's medical board in a legal document signed by him on December 7, 2020, questions the existence of the COVID-19 omicron variant in a string of eight images, which mix facts with falsehoods. The post says the "definition of what constitutes a positive test" has changed, meaning "millions of new 'Covid' cases will be found." The charge is found in "Step Six":


(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Wed Dec 15 15:40:13 2021 UTC)

Definition not changed

The post's contention that the COVID testing definition was changed to include omicron is not true, but the variant can pose a challenge for one of the approved PCR tests used to confirm the COVID virus. The claim is "Step Five" among the eight images:


(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Wed Dec 15 16:08:33 2021 UTC)

It is true that the Thermo Fisher TaqPath COVID-19 Combo Kit sometimes fails to detect one of three key genes on the spike protein for the omicron variant. Still, all three must be detected for it to qualify as a positive COVID test. The definition did not change. If two of the three genes are detected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends gene sequencing to confirm the COVID virus:

Specimens being tested using the TaqPath COVID-19 Combo Kit that yield an S gene target failure (SGTF) could be Omicron. Importantly, any possible Omicron specimen must be confirmed by sequencing. Since the TaqPath COVID-19 Combo Kit is designed to detect multiple genetic targets, the overall test sensitivity should not be impacted.

The World Health Organization takes a similar stance on omicron testing:

The diagnostic accuracy of routinely used PCR and antigen-based rapid diagnostic test (Ag-RDT) assays does not appear to be influenced by Omicron. Most Omicron variant sequences reported include a deletion in the S gene, causing some S gene targeting PCR assays to appear negative. Although some publicly shared sequences lack this deletion, this remains a minority of currently available sequences, and S gene target failure (SGTF) can therefore be used as a useful proxy marker of Omicron, for surveillance purposes. However, confirmation should be obtained by sequencing, as this deletion can also be found in other VOCs (e.g., Alpha and subsets of Gamma and Delta).

Origin story

The first cases of the omicron variant were recognized and identified in Botswana at a Harvard-affiliated lab. According to the CDC, this is how health authorities learned of it:

On November 24, 2021, a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529, was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). This new variant was first detected in specimens collected on November 11, 2021, in Botswana and on November 14, 2021, in South Africa.

On November 26, 2021, WHO named the B.1.1.529 Omicron and classified it as a Variant of Concern (VOC). On November 30, 2021, the United States designated Omicron as a Variant of Concern, and on December 1, 2021, the first confirmed U.S. case of Omicron was identified.

Dr. Tom Cowan

Cowan is a former medical doctor, a known conspiracy theorist and practitioner of alternative medicine. Lead Stories previously debunked his theory that 5G internet networks cause COVID-19. this is how his website describes him:

Dr. Tom Cowan has been one of the leading voices speaking out against the mainstream medical narrative and coordinated agenda of masking, social distancing and forced vaccinations. His messages of health freedom and personal autonomy have resonated with millions of people around the world. Dr. Cowan challenges conventional medicine to explore health and wellness in holistic terms, seeking to provide a collaborative forum for the exchange of knowledge, products and practices that enable us to forge a new world together, governed by truth.

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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.

  Ed Payne

Ed Payne is a staff writer at Lead Stories. He is an Emmy Award-winning journalist as part of CNN’s coverage of 9/11. Ed worked at CNN for nearly 24 years with the CNN Radio Network and CNN Digital. Most recently, he was a Digital Senior Producer for Gray Television’s Digital Content Center, the company’s digital news hub for 100+ TV stations. Ed also worked as a writer and editor for WebMD. In addition to his journalistic endeavors, Ed is the author of two children’s book series: “The Daily Rounds of a Hound” and “Vail’s Tales.” 

Read more about or contact Ed Payne

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