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VERIFY: No, the CDC did not discontinue COVID-19 PCR test for inaccuracy

Social media posts online are misinterpreting a CDC alert which encourages use of a new PCR test that can detect flu and COVID-19 simultaneously.

ATLANTA — As coronavirus research continues to evolve, so does the spread of misinformation. 

Now there's a new claim making the rounds and questioning the accuracy of COVID-19 testing.

Our VERIFY team went to multiple public health officials for answers. 

THE QUESTION 

Did the CDC discontinue the PCR test for inaccuracy?

THE ANSWER

No, this claim is false. The CDC confirmed it will no long request Emergency Use Authorization approval for one, single type of PCR test that was developed early in the pandemic. Instead, encouraging labs use a newer version that can test for COVID-19 and the flu in a single test.

SOURCES

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Dr. Harry Heiman with Georgia State University’s School of Public Health

Dr. Jeff Hogan with the University of Georgia’s Infectious Diseases Department

WHAT WE FOUND

As a reminder, we’re talking about polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. The FDA confirmed to our VERIFY team PCR tests are generally considered the "gold standard" for detecting COVID-19. The test looks for genetic material of the virus via a nose swab, and there are nearly 300 PCR tests approved by the FDA to date.

Yet, social media claims have been misinterpreting a recent CDC lab alert from July 21, which shared that after December 31, 2021, the agency would no longer request Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA for the CDC 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019 nCoV) Real-Time PCR test.

Some online took that as a sign that PCR tests are inaccurate, but that’s not the case.

“CDC withdrew recommendation for the CDC 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019 nCoV) Real-Time PCR test because although it met an important need when it was developed and used, demand for the RT-PCR test has declined with the emergence of other higher-throughput and multiplexed assays,” a spokesperson confirmed. “The CDC Novel Coronavirus (2019 nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR is a highly accurate test; the decision to discontinue support for the EUA was not based on the test’s performance.”

Instead, the CDC is encouraging labs use the newer CDC Influenza SARS-CoV-2 (Flu SC2) Multiplex assay, a PCR test that can test for both COVID-19 and the flu within a single test.

“This is a very accurate test that will save both time and resources for the lab,” the CDC spokesperson explained.

RELATED: COVID, Delta variant questions answered | Why vaccinated people can still get sick, how to maximize protection, when to mask

Public health expert Dr. Harry Heiman further explained why the agency is making the switch.

“It’s important for people to realize that this test was developed in February 2020, a time when many people were racing to develop testing technology for the coronavirus,” Dr. Heiman said. “Now we're in an atmosphere where there are in a neighborhood of 300 FDA approved tests, many of which are more efficient. They can process much faster than the original CDC test.”

Because symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can be similar, lab efficiency could be especially critical with flu season around the corner.

“Someone may not know if they're infected with influenza or the coronavirus virus,” Dr. Jeff Hogan, infectious disease expert, explained. “By combining the ability to test these two pathogens in essentially one tube, that's going to save on manpower, cost, consumables...and get the result out a little bit quicker.”

So while it’s true the CDC will no longer request emergency use approval for one particular type of PCR test, claims suggesting PCR tests are inaccurate are false. The CDC is instead phasing out its older PCR test, giving labs several months to make the transition, and the FDA confirmed the EUA for the CDC 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019 nCoV) Real-Time PCR test remains in effect in the interim.

Again, the CDC confirmed their original PCR test is highly precise. They’re just encouraging labs adopt the newer version to save time and resources.

Our VERIFY team is here to fact-check claims being shared in the community and online. Fill out the form below with something you'd like us to Verify.