Much of the research that emerges in the coming weeks will turn out to be unreliable, even wrong. We’ll be OK if we remember that.
THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION has made many stumbles in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, but one of the key failures was not having enough kits to test for the pathogen once it appeared in the United States. Instead of accepting kits from other countries—including the ones approved by the World Health Organization—the White House went its own way.
On March 17, Deborah Birx, the physician coordinating the administration’s scientific response to the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States, tried to explain the rejections. “It doesn’t help to put out a test where 50 percent or 47 percent are false positives,” Birx told reporters, suggesting that at least some overseas tests were deeply flawed. A few days later, FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn again mentioned the 47-percent error rate in an interview with National Public Radio, attributing it to “an abstract that was recently published in the literature.” He continued: “What that means is that if you had a positive test, it was pretty close to a flip of a coin as to whether it was real or not.
That sounds reasonable. After all, a test that is no better than a coin flip would do far more harm than good, burdening an already overwhelmed health care system with a tidal wave of well but worried people. Birx is a highly respected scientist whose résumé includes taking on the AIDS epidemic, and Hahn heads perhaps the nation’s most important health agency. But in this case, they appear to have relied on data that, for reasons that are still unclear, has been withdrawn from the scientific literature