My colleague Gary Kavanagh made an observation last night which will stick with me for some time: The great trick of Irish policymakers, he said, has been to convince people that the consequences of their decisions are in fact the consequences of Covid, and that there was never any other way. No matter what happens, they are blameless, because they were “trying their best”.
This view is deeply rooted. In Ireland, whenever somebody says something that is mildly, or even extraordinarily, critical of the Government strategy in relation to Covid, they need to be very careful not to run afoul of the Irish media’s eagerness to “fact check” statements and “debunk” criticisms of the official covid strategy. How dare you criticise them, aren’t they doing their best? Those who oppose the Government/NPHET strategy are generally viewed, and portrayed, as untrustworthy troublemakers. People in positions of actual power and responsibility, however, have never had to be quite so fearful.
For example, there has been no great rush to “fact-check” this extraordinary statement from Maynooth University President Philip Nolan, who also serves as chairman of the Governments’ Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group:
Can I get some snake oil with that? It makes for a great salad dressing with a pinch of salt and something acerbic. Stay safe when socialising outdoors over the next few weeks. Small numbers, distance, masks. These antigen tests will not keep you safe. https://t.co/CsoTNrpfye
— Professor Philip Nolan (@President_MU) May 8, 2021
Nolan will be relatively lucky here if he is not sued for defamation, since the clear implication of his tweet is that Lidl is selling a product that is “snake oil”. After all, according to wikipedia:
Snake oil is a euphemism for deceptive marketing, health care fraud, or a scam.
So, are Lidl engaged in deceptive marketing, fraud, or a scam? The answer to that is pretty definitive: Absolutely not.
What is an antigen test, first of all? Well, here’s what our own HSE says:
The COVID-19 antigen test uses a swab to take a sample from your nose. The sample does not need to go to a lab. The test results are quicker than the COVID-19 PCR test, but it has some limitations…. The antigen test is less accurate than the COVID-19 PCR test. The test will find the virus in most people who have symptoms. But in some cases, it may not pick up that you have the virus. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, tell a healthcare worker immediately.
And do they work? Here’s what a major study of 24,000 people found:
In people with confirmed COVID-19, antigen tests correctly identified COVID-19 infection in an average of 72% of people with symptoms, compared to 58% of people without symptoms. Tests were most accurate when used in the first week after symptoms first developed (an average of 78% of confirmed cases had positive antigen tests). This is likely to be because people have the most virus in their system in the first days after they are infected.
In people who did not have COVID-19, antigen tests correctly ruled out infection in 99.5% of people with symptoms and 98.9% of people without symptoms.
Are antigen tests perfect? Absolutely not. They are generally considered to be less accurate than the PCR testing that is carried out at Covid test centres. But less accurate than a PCR test does not mean that they are useless, or a fraud. In fact, they are very useful, as the study above shows, in ruling out Covid.
Indeed, there’s no such thing as a perfect covid test. In fact, the HSE itself says that its own PCR can produce false negatives, noting that “a systematic review of the accuracy of COVID-19 tests reported false negative rates of between 2% and 29%”.
And what benefits do we gain, for example, from antigen tests? Well, for one thing, they are much faster, and much easier, than PCR testing. In fact, they may soon become very useful for people who wish to travel. Germany, for example, will recognise the results of an antigen test, if you want to enter that country, as proof that you are covid negative.
It is not hard to see how this kind of fast, home-testing product could assist countries and companies in the drive to open their economies quickly. In fact, as these tests become more advanced, they could even take the place of the long-proposed vaccine passports, by allowing people to prove their covid status while crossing borders.
And what is Nolan’s objection to them? We cannot say, because he does not say himself. He simply calls them “snake oil” and moves on. That, if readers will permit a little bit of editorialising, is an absolute disgrace.
That it is a disgrace, incidentally, is not only my view. Here is Harvard Professor, Dr. Michael Mina, absolutely tearing into Nolan over his comments:
For an advisor to your government – you don’t appear to know what you are talking about @President_MU wrt rapid tests.
The comment adds nothing of benefit and further sows confusion.
You should be ashamed of your demeanor here.
— Michael Mina (@michaelmina_lab) May 9, 2021
Mina is not some random critic, either: He is, according to his bio, an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at School of Public Health and a core member of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics (CCDD). He is additionally an Assistant Professor in Immunology and Infectious Diseases at HSPH and Associate Medical Director in Clinical Microbiology (molecular diagnostics) in the Department of Pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. In other words, this fellow knows what he is talking about, and is willing to say openly that Nolan is talking nonsense.
Of course, if Nolan has evidence that he wishes to put into the public domain that these tests are unsafe, or inappropriate, or likely to harm the fight against Covid, then he should do so. What he’s done here, though, is to deliberately smear a quick, cheap, test that is being employed across almost every other EU country. He seems to believe that he knows something that the rest of Europe does not, but he does not wish to tell us what it is.
The rest of the media should be hanging him out to dry, for this one. We all know that if Gemma O’Doherty, or some hapless fool on facebook, had said that antigen tests were dangerous snake oil, the media would have been rushing out to warn about dangerous misinformation. But Nolan works for the Government, so will, of course, be treated with the highest deference.
And that deference – that refusal to question, or challenge, or doubt – has lead Nolan, and too many people like him, to believe that they are infallible. That is one of the many reasons we have been in this mess, for so long.