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HomeCOVID-19Did ‘Operation Moonshot’ inadvertently reveal the pseudo-pandemic?

Did ‘Operation Moonshot’ inadvertently reveal the pseudo-pandemic?


TCW has extensively reported on the commercial and political aspects of the scandal of the UK adoption of Lateral Flow Tests (LFTs) in a series of articles dubbed the ‘Innova Scandal’. This article complements that investigative work by focusing on the accuracy of the LFT tests and asks whether the data obtained during their use told us, at the time, that there was no ‘pandemic’.

Why re-examine what we know about LFTs now? Keeping up with events during the ‘pandemic’ was difficult in real time but now a sufficient period has passed that we can look at things in the round, with the benefit of information from recently published studies, and therefore join the dots more effectively. Our motivation is to look back as if we were scientific historians.

LFTs were initially proposed in the UK as part of Boris Johnson’s ‘Operation Moonshot’ mass testing programme, which had a proposed budget of £200billion. The China-manufactured Innova test was ultimately selected. The claimed massive second wave of the pandemic between 2020/2021 coincided with this mass testing programme, including the routine testing of asymptomatic people returning to workplaces, schools etc.

We were consistent in arguing that this claimed mass second wave was a pseudo-pandemic of false positives and we published many regular articles providing evidence of this. However, increasingly the evidence from testing was used to counter our claim. In fact, even close colleagues who had originally agreed with our belief about this being a pandemic of false positives were swayed into changing their minds. For instance, whereas our colleague Dr Clare Craig claimed in 2020 that ‘we are in a false positive pseudo-epidemic’,  in her June 2023 book she recants, saying: ‘Government testing did broadly work to diagnose the covid cases in the community. My concerns and those of others were exaggerated concerning the scale and true level of false PCR positives. We were wrong on the big picture for community testing.’ 

However, had we known at the time about the problems with PCR testing, and had more insight into the accuracy of LFTs, our own claim of a pandemic of false positives would have been strengthened, while colleagues like Clare may also have stuck to their original (and in our view) correct intuition.

The usefulness of mass population testing for any respiratory virus is critically dependent on the reliability of the test applied, whether it be a PCR or an LFT. The way tests are evaluated is therefore important. Evaluating a test against the pathogenic competition is a much more of a rigorous ‘gold standard’ than evaluating it against another test. However, what we find is that in 2020 and 2021 evaluation of LFTs was not being done against competing pathogens, but rather solely by comparing against PCR test results, as if the PCR test result was indeed the ground truth, when plainly it is not.

It wasn’t until late 2021 that LFTs were evaluated using competing coronaviruses and other pathogens, rather than being compared against PCR. It then became clear how much better LFTs were, in terms of being reasonably sensitive and highly specific. This was largely unrecognised until reports on their accuracy were published this year in Nature and the Lancet.

Before the roll out of Innova LFTs nationally, mass trials were held in Liverpool, Wales, Glasgow and elsewhere. These confirmed extremely low Covid-19 positivity rates. Comments made by Professor Jon Deeks and others about these mass trial results made clear that this news was most unwelcome, but rather than abandon the trials and look afresh at both PCR and LFT tests they simply presumed the PCR tests were better oracles than LFTs, and doggedly stuck with them.

After the national roll-out had taken place the Covid-19 surveillance report from Public Health England in February 2021 compared LFT and PCR positivity nationally. From this we see the positivity rate using the Innova LFT starts to rise only from week 50 of 2020, and then declines to false positive levels (less than 1 per cent) by week 4 of 2021. End to end this is a period of only 6 weeks. What’s more, it never exceeds 4 per cent positivity in week 53, compared to a peak 18 per cent PCR positivity that same week. Thus, LFTs told us that the ‘pandemic’ peaked at a 4 per cent prevalence rate that winter.

This good news from the mass roll-out was ignored. Instead, the health authorities remained fixated on the inflated PCR positivity rate, partly because they regarded the PCR test as the ‘gold standard’, but perhaps also because they wanted to use mass testing to enhance the public perception of a pandemic, regardless of what results they produced.

The greater accuracy (in terms of vastly less false positivity) of the LFTs inconveniently highlighted how inflated the PCR positive numbers were. Given this, we should have concluded in early 2021 that there was no pandemic.

This article was co-authored by Professor Norman Fenton and Dr Jonathan Engler.

The full analysis of this investigation can be read at  Where are the Numbers? 

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Professor Martin Neil
Professor Martin Neil
Martin Neil is Professor of computer science and statistics at Queen Mary, University of London

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