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Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone January 3, 2022

The CDC didn’t say its COVID-19 tests can’t differentiate between the virus and the flu

If Your Time is short

  • The CDC in July announced its intent to withdraw an emergency use request for a protocol for PCR testing for COVID-19. The withdrawal would become effective Dec. 31, 2021.

  • But that was because of the need for efficiency. The original protocol only detected COVID-19, while newer tests that were already FDA authorized were able to also detect influenza.

This past summer, many social media posts claimed that the CDC was withdrawing its PCR test for COVID-19 because the test didn’t differentiate the coronavirus and the flu.

That claim was debunked in July by PolitiFact and other fact checkers, but it is back again — and it’s just as wrong now as it was then.

An Instagram post showed a screenshot of a Dec. 29, 2021, headline from The Gateway Pundit that read: "HUGE. CDC Withdraws Use of PCR Test for COVID and Finally Admits the Test Can Not Differentiate Between the Flu and COVID Virus."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its news feed. (Read more about PolitiFact’s partnership with Facebook.)

Here’s what actually happened.

On July 21, the CDC issued a lab alert saying that it was withdrawing its request to the FDA for emergency use authorization of "the CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel, the assay first introduced in February 2020 for detection of SARS-CoV-2 only."

The CDC alert encouraged labs to instead use newer tests that can detect multiple viruses at the same time, in order to "save both time and resources as we head into influenza season."

After the initial alert raised questions, the CDC on Aug. 2 issued a clarification, saying that the change was because the FDA "has authorized hundreds of other SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic tests, many of which … can test for more than one illness at a time." 

The agency said the first diagnostic panel it had been seeking emergency authorization for "was specifically designed to only detect SARS-CoV-2 viral genetic material. It does not detect influenza or differentiate between influenza and SARS-CoV-2. The presence of influenza viral genetic material within a specimen will not cause a false positive result."

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What’s more, in a July 30 fact-check, PolitiFact found that the original CDC request was not for a physical test as the false claim suggested, but rather for a protocol for how to test for COVID-19. 

The CDC had also sought emergency use authorization earlier in July for its Influenza SARS-CoV-2 (Flu SC2) Multiplex Assay that could test for both viruses, which the FDA soon granted.

The reason this claim may be cropping up again now is that the CDC said in the alert that its withdrawal would be effective on Dec. 31 in order to give laboratories plenty of advance notice.

In a Dec. 30 email to PolitiFact, an FDA spokesman pointed us to the instructions for use for the CDC’s original panel, which "includes sensitivity data as well as specificity/exclusivity data regarding Influenza and other viruses."

The CDC did not respond to an email seeking comment on the recent claim, but says on its website that the original test "filled an important unmet need" in early 2020, but that newer tests that can detect both COVID-19 and influenza are more efficient.

Our ruling

An Instagram post claims that the CDC is withdrawing its COVID-19 test and admitted that it’s because the test can’t tell the difference between the flu and the coronavirus.

But that’s not what happened. The CDC said in July it would withdraw from FDA consideration its emergency use authorization request for its 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel because it was designed specifically to detect only COVID-19. 

But the CDC said it was because it wanted laboratories to use newer FDA-authorized tests that could already detect the flu as well as COVID-19, in order to save time. The clarification made clear that the initial test only detected COVID-19, not the flu.

We rate this claim False.

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The CDC didn’t say its COVID-19 tests can’t differentiate between the virus and the flu

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