Testing for COVID-19: Why We Should Have Been Using PCR Tests All Along

Published on July 2, 2020

The last few months have brought with them profound cultural and societal changes to virtually every country around the world. Governments, businesses, and individuals alike are adapting to “the new normal” set forth by the coronavirus (COVID-19), which has claimed millions of jobs, trillions of dollars, and over 500,000 lives globally thus far.

On the largest scale in human history, everything from stay-at-home orders and public mask-wearing to social-distancing measures and rapid disinfection of public surfaces has become commonplace.

And now, government officials have started taking preliminary steps to “reopen” their economies — to gradually restore normalcy to communities and enable workers to resume earning a living.

Predictably, policymakers’ chief concern, aside from rebuilding the market and assuring the livelihood of employees, is preventing the novel coronavirus from spreading and harming more citizens yet. In this vein, elements of the public and the government are clashing over the specifics associated with rolling back nonessential business closures and preserving the public health.

Given the stakes of the argument and the corresponding depth of its disagreements, it will probably come as a surprise that the solution to limiting the coronavirus’s spread — to avoiding the current resurgence — was a simple pivot from specimen testing to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing.

Administered via a nose swab, PCR testing is faster, safer, and more accurate than specimen testing, and had healthcare professionals and institutions made the switch sooner, the ongoing crisis may have been less severe and less deadly.

That PCR was the key to beating COVID-19 all along bears emphasizing, for the point will guide individuals, organizations, and doctors as they continue to confront the most pronounced health crisis of our time. And in a broader sense, future generations stand to benefit from the information as they face their own pandemics.

Diseases and circumstances change, but innovation and efficiency will forever be pillars of an effective health-crisis response.

COVID-19 Specimen Testing: A Temporary Solution to a Long-Term Problem

In many ways, the novel coronavirus took the West by storm, and an immediate need for a functional testing infrastructure prompted medical professionals to turn to specimen procedures.

Rather than being the best COVID-19 testing type, however, specimen testing was simply the first COVID-19 testing type.

By any objective standard, novel coronavirus specimen tests were deeply flawed. Laboratories required between three and 14 days to process specimens and return results, which were often wrought with false positives and negatives. In turn, coinfection tests — those that pinpoint the specific ailments brought on by COVID-19 following a novel coronavirus diagnosis and which allow medical professionals to promptly issue useful treatments — were also being administered too slowly.

Coupled with a testing capacity that didn’t come close to meeting demand, the COVID-19 specimen test was decidedly unsuited for the immense challenges of the pandemic.

PCR Testing Brought Precision, Speed, and Affordability to the Table

Stated succinctly, PCR testing is more precise, more cost-effective, and quicker than specimen testing.

During the early days of the virus’s stateside spread, implementing PCR would have made it easier to identify COVID-19 carriers, direct them to self-quarantine, and minimize the disease’s prevalence. The relative slowness of specimen testing contributed to the novel coronavirus reaching millions of Americans.

PCR tests require just 12 hours to deliver results and boast a 99 percent sensitivity compared to specimen tests. Equally as important, they’re capable of identifying pathogens’ antibiotic resistance, thereby paving the way for doctors to begin providing effective treatment before the disease seriously harms the health and well-being of sufferers.

Acting during this window that separates positive tests and the onset of symptoms could be the difference between life and death in many cases.

Additionally, when COVID-19 was widely diagnosed by specimen tests, somewhere in the ballpark of half of the prescribed antibiotics were ineffective, as the testing type failed to recognize most pathogens within the biofilm. Let’s compare: specimen testing can identify only five percent of biofilm pathogens, while PCR testing identifies 100 percent of them.

PCR tests effectively doubled the United States’ specimen testing capacity, to the benefit of medical professionals, those battling COVID-19, those taking steps to avoid contracting the novel coronavirus, and the slumping economy.

Getting Americans Back to Work and Overcoming the Novel Coronavirus

From the outset, helping Americans return to work and avoid coming down with the novel coronavirus were not mutually exclusive. The solution to both was a comprehensive shift to the faster, better testing offered by PCR.

A substantial portion of novel coronavirus carriers show mild or no symptoms, but are nevertheless capable of spreading the virus to others who might experience severe health complications. Thanks to expedient results from PCR testing, asymptomatic sufferers are self-quarantining (and preemptively benefiting from pathogen-based antibiotics), and those who test negative are resuming work.

Unfortunately, the comparatively slow specimen testing failed to stop the disease from reaching Americans at a critical juncture. But every setback brings with it an opportunity to improve and innovate. That’s precisely what medical professionals are doing presently.

Doctors’ continued efforts and utilization of PCR testing will aid the United States and other nations in their common crusade against COVID-19 — so that it becomes a distant memory sooner rather than later.

Dr. Jeffrey Cronk is a contributor to Grit Daily. He is a nationally recognized expert and thought leader on spinal ligament injuries, which are the number one cause of pain and disability worldwide. He is CEO of Spinal Kinetics, a National Medical Company that Provides CRMA (Computerized Radiographic Mensuration Analysis) to doctors that are testing for the severity and location of their patient's spinal ligament injuries. Dr. Cronk also serves as CEO of Biocybernetics Inc, which provides education for doctors and lawyers in the spinal ligament injury space through Smart Injury Doctor and Smart Injury Lawyers.

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