Coronavirus: a reliable test is badly needed. We don’t have one

By Jerome Burne

Media coverage of the rapidly growing Coronavirus 2019 nCov epidemic is unanimous that official bodies are doing everything possible to contain it, using all the tools of modern medical science and public health resources. 

The UK government has committed 40 million pounds to research. We are told that this novel virus was rapidly identified, a test developed and those testing positive are being rapidly quarantined and treated with the latest medications.

But there is a dissenting voice. David Crowe is a Canadian software and telecommunications engineer with a degree in mathematics and biology who has become an independent expert in 21st Century global infections such as SARS, Ebola and flu.

 Working from a database of 10,000 scientific papers, government, corporate and mainstream media reports, he has been raising fundamental questions about the way viral epidemics and are identified and treated.  

A rush to judgement

Crowe describes the current response as a ‘rush to judgement, based on the rapid application of an unproven test, made worse by the use of powerful unproven drugs with toxic side-effects on those who test positive.’ The Chinese seems to have tacitly acknowledged the issue by starting to change the way diagnoses are recorded – see below.

Some of the evidence for his claim emerged in the aftermath of the last global epidemic caused by a coronavirus known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). It was first reported in Asia in February 2003, spreading to more than two dozen countries around the world but was contained within the year. Out of the 8,098 who caught it, 774 died. 

After the epidemic, which triggered much the same response as the current emergency, doctors and scientists began publishing insider accounts of what had happened in journals that are rarely seen by the general public. Some of them concerned the very toxic drugs used to treat SARS patients.

These studies suggest that in the early days, patients with pneumonia were diagnosed with SARS because the symptoms – fever, headache, an aching body and a dry cough -were similar to those of pneumonia and flu. But the drugs they were given were much more toxic than those used for pneumonia, which could be why SARS gained the reputation for being such a deadly disease.  At least some of the patients died from the treatment, not from the disease. 

Damage to blood cells and the liver

For example, a report commissioned by a World Health Organization expert panel concluded that the antiviral drug ribavirin, widely used during the epidemic, caused the destruction of red blood cells (hemolytic anaemia) in one-third to two-thirds of patients and that 75% of them developed liver problems. The drug is also known to cause ‘flu-like symptoms such as fever, difficulty breathing, body aches and pains as well as being able to trigger psychiatric conditions such as depression, psychosis and aggressive behaviour. 

Other reports showed that high dose corticosteroids, also widely used, caused lasting side effects, most notably serious neurological and bone problems.

There is also evidence that these drugs, with their extremely unpleasant side effects, contributed to their deaths. Crowe’s research found that in the countries most affected by SARS, the rich ones – Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada – had a higher death rate than the poorer countries – China and Vietnam.

 This, he suggests, could have been due to high doses of the more expensive injectable ribavirin being used in the rich countries, while cheaper, low-dose, oral ribavirin was often used in poorer countries.

SARS was so feared, not just because it was thought to be more deadly than other respiratory diseases, but also because it was believed to be highly infectious.  But Crowe has evidence that this was a mistake too. It certainly doesn’t fit with an accidental experiment carried out at a Chinese hospital that mistakenly placed SARS and AIDS patients on the same floor of a hospital.

The vulnerable patients who escaped being infected

The AIDS patients were suffering from significant immune suppression and they intermingled for several weeks with the supposedly highly infectious SARS patients. Yet not a single AIDS patient got SARS, not even the one AIDS patient who was put in a room with SARS patients. 

It seems likely, instead, that the idea that SARS was highly infectious was due to the official definition of the disease. To be diagnosed with SARS you had to have had contact with another victim. So, SARS patients always had proven contact with another SARS patient was because the definition demanded it. 

But his research, which also involves other scientists critical of the theory that HIV causes AIDS, has identified a more fundamental problem – how the virus causing an epidemic is identified?  If you get it wrong, you may start treating people who don’t have it (false positives) or fail to spot those who do (false negative) and getting it right is tricky. 

 Although media and many scientific papers make it sound as if the test being used can detect the latest virus just as you can detect measles or herpes virus, that’s not the case. What the test is actually looking for is a particular strand of RNA which, it is assumed, comes from the new virus. The test then makes another assumption that the RNA/virus combination is always the cause of the illness when it is found in a sick person.

No symptoms? You can still test positive for the virus 

The basic rules for proving disease causation are known as Koch’s Postulates (after the great 19th Century bacteriologist Robert Koch) and they demand that a disease-causing entity, such as a virus, is purified as a first step. But this has not been done, as the authors of a recent paper admitted: ‘“we did not perform tests for detecting the infectious virus in blood”. 

If a virus is the cause of an infection, then it should be able to cause disease by itself. But there are plenty of reports where this doesn’t happen. For example, in one family the boy, who had no symptoms, tested positive while his mother, who was quite ill, was tested 18 times but found to be negative each time. 

Another study reported that four Germans tested positive after meeting a Shanghai-based woman in Germany, who became sick on her way home, showed no subsequent signs of “severe clinical illness.” 

False positives are dangerously misleading. For instance, even if an epidemic began to die out, public health officials would still be getting positive results from an unreliable test and insist that the epidemic was still a threat. Testing all of Wuhan’s 10 million inhabitants with a 99% accurate test would give you 100,000 false positives. 

One simple way to establish the false positive rate would be to test at least a thousand healthy people, without symptoms, outside the epidemic zone to find out how many tested positive. However, no serious attempts to establish true or false positive rates have been published. 

But the Chinese government have just changed the way new cases are recorded, according to a tweet from a Hong Kong journalist. The original WHO guidelines for diagnosing 2019 Coronavirus said that a positive test was all that was needed. The person didn’t need to have symptoms or to have had recent contact with someone who was infected.

Now cases that were diagnosed without symptoms are being removed from the record of new cases if they don’t develop them.  A recognition of the failings of the test that should make infection figures more realistic

Drugs used in epidemics are heavyweight and untested

Doctors who believe that they have a deadly new viral epidemic on their hands will almost always reach for the most potent medicines in the cabinet. Often these medicines have not been used much before, or only used for different diseases, and it is impossible to get good scientific data from this situation where denying patients “life-saving” medications to give them a placebo would be considered unethical.

 But how can anyone know that drugs never before used for a condition are “life-saving” and not outrageously dangerous?

The epidemic is following this pattern. In the first major survey of 41 coronavirus patients, all were given antibiotics (not effective against viruses), and 93% the antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu). Corticosteroids were given to 22% and some were given invasive respiratory assistance, which was also associated with lasting problems during SARS. 

 A second survey published 6 days later reported that fewer patients were given antivirals but there were more types being used. As well as oseltamivir were three, known to have a wide range of toxic effects – ganciclovir, lopinavir and ritonavir. 

There is an extensive literature on oseltamivir, which is summed up by Canadian drug policy researcher Alan Cassels, in a recent tweet, “It’s a useless drug”. 

AIDS drugs that can kill the elderly 

Ganciclovir interferes with DNA synthesis, which is also the mode of action of many AIDS drugs. It causes serious anaemias and has been shown to cause cancer and mutations in animals. 

The AIDS drugs Lopinavir and Ritonavir have long been packaged in one pill together as Kaletra:  its major side effects are listed as pancreas failure, liver toxicity, diabetes and redistribution of body fat. 

The patients in China are already older and frailer than average. and 51% had pre-existing conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, respiratory system diseases and cancer or nervous system diseases. These are precisely the people who cannot withstand antiviral drugs and corticosteroids. But those who have died, and will die, are all being classified as coronavirus deaths.

Apart from encouraging the use of drugs with toxic effects, the pandemic panic will almost certainly generate permission to test and approve vaccines for the virus, especially if the faulty testing continues, and more and more cases are diagnosed. Given the relatively small number of patients, even in this pandemic, the use of pharmaceutical drugs is not a big money-maker, but it is certainly good publicity, the big money will be in a vaccine that can be given to millions, or even billions of people.

We won’t know which is worse – infection or treatment?

In the panic created by an epidemic, more people go to A&E with flu-like symptoms where a slight cough or fever can be seen as predicting imminent doom. But with an effective test, those known to be uninfected could be told not to worry. Those who had symptoms and were known to be infected could be quarantined and treated, assuming that safe, specific and effective drugs had been developed.

With the unreliable test, however, uninfected healthy people may be treated with toxic drugs, and unhealthy people, sick for some other reason, may also be treated with inappropriate drugs. Isolation, and other medical procedures such as invasive ventilation, also have their own side effects. This means that we cannot distinguish the dangers of testing positive from the dangers of the virus.

David Crowe graduated with degrees in Biology and Mathematics in 1978 and started a career in software and telecommunications. Since the 1990s he has made a critical study of virus disease models. He is the president of Rethinking AIDS, host of “The Infectious Myth” radio show, and author of a peer-reviewed article on the Ebola vaccine.  He can be reached at

Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne is the editor of HealthInsightUK. He is an award-winning journalist who has been specialising in medicine and health for the last 10 years and now works mainly for the Daily Mail. His most recent book “The Hybrid Diet” was written with nutritionist Patrick Holford, published 2018. Award: 2015: Finalist for 'Blogger of the Year' Medical Journalists' Association.


  • The other side of this is the denial that a cheap, safe alternative treatment could already exist – namely vitamin C (in mega doses). In a cell study the antiviral properties were “comparable to those of conventional drugs (amantadine and oseltamivir). However, NM had the advantage of affecting viral replication at the late stages of the infection process.”

    And for the first time, a Chinese hospital is trialling 25g intravenous vitamin C, for 7 days, on infected patients []. The description of the study says:
    “Vitamin C is significant to human body and plays a role in reducing inflammatory response and preventing common cold. In addtion, a few studies have shown that vitamin C deficiency is related to the increased risk and severity of influenza infections.”

    I did a facebook post on this on the 3rd Feb with much more evidence for high dose vit C’s anti-viral effects and, today, Facebook have slapped a ‘false information’ warning on this, apparently checked by independent fact checkers, with no way to find out who they are, what facts they oppose, and why or any means of engagement. Thanks for this excellent blog digging beneath the surface.

  • It almost seems that there exists a Grand Condpiracy against vitamin C, even going back to the days of Dr Lind – usually credited with showing Vit C supplementation was the cure for (naval) scurvy.
    In recent cases in Sydney Australia and New Zealand, patients and their families had to battle the doctors to try IV Vitamin C. Incidentaly, both patients made striking recoveries…

  • Thanks Jerome, very useful article. Is there any evidence that those who test positive using the existing test but have no symptoms are not able to transmit the virus to others?

    • Editorial

      There is a lot of uncertainty here but a plausible answer is no. That’s becasue a positive test with no symptoms suggests that the RNA strand that the test has detected is not one connected with the virus, otherwise they would have symptoms. This would seem to be the thinking behind the latest change by the Chinese in how test results are recorded – taking patients with positive results, but no symptoms, off the infected list, when no symptoms emerge within a couple of weeks.

  • Questions like whether the virus can be transmitted presuppose that the test is for a virus, and that indeed the virus exists. There is no evidence for this. Finding RNA, which is ubiquitous throughout all organisms, does not prove that a virus is present. There are also so many biases that strengthen assumptions that this is infectious, but they are biases. For example, you’re more likely to be tested if you’re from Wuhan, or have ever been to Wuhan. You’re more likely to be tested if a family member has been diagnosed. If there is a high rate of false positives, you’re going to find family members, and people who were in a shop with another victim, or travelled on a train through Wuhan, or whatever, more likely to test positive, because they’re more likely to be tested. If, on the other hand, China did totally random testing, i.e. pick an ID card out of a hat and test that person, they would find that virtually everyone testing positive had no connection to others.

    • Dear Dawid, could you post a link to your SARS document? I tried to search on your website, butwithout success and the link for this book in the article about Coronaviruss does not work. I would love to read it! (by the way, the e-mail address also does not work).

      • Editorial

        apologies – only just picked this up will try to sort it with David

  • The Chinese are no longer counting asymptomatic cases (although nobody is raising the possibility that they might be false positives, except me), and the number of new cases has crashed, from nearly 16,000 on Feb 12 to around 250 on Feb 21 (in China).
    NY Times:

  • I’ve written a post about the trialing of Vitamin C and what Dr Thomas Levy, US cardiologist claims about the vitamin.

  • Editorial

    Frances can you supply a link?

  • I applaud David Crowe, and I shall inform others of his work. I too have been adamant that the world has gone nuts because how can a virulent, lethal virus affect most people very mildly or not at all? And why would children, including young children and babies, be exempt if it’s so bad? I have made two videos about my views on the corona crisis, and I just make more.

  • If no virus exists, then why are hospitals being overwhelmed? Because people are going in with mild symptoms and being treated for a serious virus? Are you suggesting that the spike in mortalities is actually due to serious drug interventions? What about the cardiac arrests in NYC? Or otherwise healthy people suffering hypoxia? Surely there is something afoot, albeit less viral. Right? I am a total layperson, but trying to grasp this whole thing.

  • Perspectives on the Pandemic | The (Undercover) Epicenter Nurse | Episode Nine
    This answers a lot about numbers of cases. I realize there is a video that claims to ‘debunk’ it.

  • Editorial

    Thanks to google translate: concerned about how epidemics are identified and addressed. Jerome Burne reports on “Coronavirus: a reliable test is extremely necessary. We don’t have…..Thie quote is taken from a post put up in February – It was based on a very prescient analysis of the situation by a guy called Bob Crowe, sadly now died. There obviously is at ;east two tests now both prone to considerable error. But many of Crowe’s points considered absurdly radical and unhelpful at the time have turned out to be correct. Familiar story

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