Fact check: The Australian government did not warn doctors that coronavirus tests are unable to distinguish between COVID-19 and a common cold

A picture circulating on Facebook masquerading as a screenshot of the Australian government’s website makes several false claims about tests for COVID-19.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

The post, which has been shared hundreds of times from multiple accounts (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), shows a webpage headed by the logo for Australia’s Department of Health. Underneath, a clause in quote marks reads: “It should be noted that PCR tests cannot distinguish between ‘live’ virus and non-infective RNA.” This is then followed by a further block of text in a red-outlined box that reads: “This means the test cannot disguishing [sic] covid from a cold or measles from ebola.”

This photo, however, has taken an authentic quote from the Australian government out of context and applied false information to make a further false claim.

The quote regarding the PCR test can be found on the second page of an official document written for Australian clinicians about COVID-19 (here). It is wrong, though, to suggest this quote means the novel coronavirus cannot be distinguished from a common cold.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is widely used to test for COVID-19 in an individual. It does so identifying in a sample the specific genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes the disease – before amplifying it for scientists to detect (here).

The specificity of genetic material in the virus means that it is “highly unlikely” for a person who simply has a common cold to test positive for COVID-19, according to Dr Rob Shorten, the chair of the Microbiology Committee, Association for Clinical Biochemistry & Laboratory Medicine (here) .

Therefore, the quote taken from the Australian government is not referring to the effectiveness of a PCR test on COVID-19; rather, it is talking about detecting whether a person is still infectious. Speaking to Reuters, a spokesperson from Public Health England (PHE) explained that the detection of virus material from a PCR test is simply doing just that: detecting specific virus material. It is not confirming whether the virus is still “live” or whether it is no longer contagious (here).

“It is important to note that detecting viral material by PCR does not indicate that the virus is fully intact and infectious, i.e. able to cause infection in other people,” the spokesperson said. “The isolation of infectious virus from positive individuals requires virus culture methods. These methods can only be conducted in laboratories with specialist containment facilities and are time consuming and complex.”


False. The picture has taken an authentic quote from the Australian government and used it out of context to partner it with a false claim. It is highly unlikely that a PCR test for COVID-19 would return as positive for someone who has only contracted a common cold - and the government quote was not making this claim. The quote was simply informing clinicians that results of a PCR test cannot confirm whether a patient with COVID-19 is still infectious.

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