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Jones concerned by reports of false negatives in COVID-19 testing

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones during a livestreamed press briefing. (OFFICE OF SEN. DOUG JONES/FACEBOOK)

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Alabama? on Thursday expressed concerns with recent research indicating that COVID-19 testing could have high rates of “false negatives.”

Jones made the comments while talking to reporters in an online news conference.

“More and more tests are coming online, but as they come online, we are also seeing studies that some of the tests that are out there are giving a lot of false negatives,” Jones told reporters. “There was a report yesterday, that I saw, that even the Abbott test, that has been touted by so many people as effective, there is a huge percentage of false negatives. So we have got to look into that. That is disturbing.”

Jones said that more research was needed “to see if that is in fact accurate.”

Jones said that the first tests for COVID-19 were nasal swab tests that took days and weeks to get results back, but that new faster tests were coming online thanks to the research in the area.

“There are more tests that are coming out that give results a lot quicker,” Jones said.

Jones was asked if the administration had a political motive for there being a lack of testing.

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Jones denied that.

“I don’t believe there is a political motive,” Jones said. “It is a supply issue.”

“It is a production issue at this point,” Jones added. “It is a research issue. It is going to continue to take time. The administration I think was slow to react. They did not invoke the Defense Production Act for this.”

“I think we have got to continue to do the research,” Jones told reporters. “As we do the research and get the reliable tests there is going to be money there that Congress has already appropriated to ramp up the testing to get that out. It is the distribution issue that I am most concerned about; because we have got to get those distributed out there. Alabama, in particular, I think, our underserved communities, minority communities Have not seen the testing that they should; and we have got to make sure that we get out there.”

The new research released on Wednesday revealed that tests used around the U.S. to diagnose Covid-19 patients produced a very high rate of negative results that incorrectly show a person isn’t infected.

One study released Wednesday examined the Abbott Laboratories test that’s used at the White House. That study indicated it may miss as many as half of positive cases. A second peer-reviewed study released hours later suggested that results for another type of widely used diagnostic test are particularly unreliable early on in an infection.

According to the report in BioRxiv, the first study found that Abbott’s ID NOW machine missed at least one-third of positive cases detected with a rival test, and as many as 48 percent when using the currently recommended dry nasal swabs.

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Abbott disputed the results from researchers at New York University. The company claims that the researchers didn’t use the test as intended. The company said its data showed a false-negative rate of 0.02 percent.

The second analysis was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and was authored by Johns Hopkins researchers. They analyzed seven previously-published studies evaluating 1,330 patient samples and focused on a group of widely-used Covid-19 diagnostic tests known as “polymerase chain reaction” tests. The study suggested that false negatives are especially likely before the onset of symptoms, such as when a patient is tested soon after exposure to the virus.

When patients were tested immediately after infection, typically before symptoms occur, the false-negative rate was 100 percent. On the first day of symptoms, the false-negative rate was 38 percent. After three days of symptoms, false-negatives dropped to just 20 percent. The rate actually got worse after five days, suggesting a narrow window for the most accurate results.

Without accurate testing, it is difficult to get the economy restarted without a vaccine for COVID-19. Businesses would like to have reliable testing to protect their workers from exposure on the job.

Abbott’s ID Now testing machine is roughly the size of a toaster, is portable and doesn’t require deep nasal swabs. The new test for SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19) gives diagnostic results in as little 30 minutes. It has received emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a result of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

As of Friday afternoon, 88,210 Americans had died since February 27 from COVID-19. 1,071,085 have active cases of the coronavirus.

Doug Jones has represented Alabama in the U.S. Senate since January 2018 and faces re-election this year.

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Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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