Fact check: Comments from PCR test creator lacking context in social media post – USA TODAY

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Biochemist and PCR test creator Kary Mullis died in 2019, months before the pandemic emerged, but some of his decades-old comments are being used on social media in an attempt to cast doubt on the reliability of COVID-19 test results.
Mullis won the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction, a technique used to amplify DNA and detect viruses. Misinformation about PCR tests, which scientists call the “gold standard” for a COVID-19 diagnosis, has circulated online for more than a year.
Now, some users are suggesting Mullis himself said the tests shouldn’t be used to detect viruses. 
A Jan. 11 Facebook post with more than 300 interactions claims Mullis said, “Anyone can test positive for practically anything with a PCR test, if you run it long enough with PCR if you do it well, you can find almost anything in anybody. It doesn’t tell you that you’re sick.”
Fact-checking organizations debunked similar versions of this claim in November 2020, but the quote continues to make the rounds on social media without proper context. While Mullis made the statement attributed to him, he was speaking about how he opposed using PCR tests to detect HIV, not COVID-19. 
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The Facebook user who shared the post did not return a request for comment. 
The quote in question stems from a July 1997 meeting in Santa Monica, California, where Mullis spoke about the high sensitivity levels of PCR tests and how results can be misinterpreted.
In response to a question from an audience member about how PCR tests can be misused, Mullis says the test itself can’t be misused, but rather the interpretations of it can, because the test creates “a whole lot of something from something.”
“If they could find this virus in you at all, and with the PCR, if you do it well, you can find almost anything in anybody,” Mullis said. “It starts to get you to believe in some kind of Buddhist notion, where everything is contained there and everything in between.”
Mullis added that someone with HIV is generally going to have “almost anything that you can test for” and “there’s a good chance you’ve also got a lot of other ones.”
His comments were related to his argument that PCR tests shouldn’t be used to diagnose AIDS. For years, Mullis denied that HIV was the cause of AIDS.
The post cites Mullis’s quote – in the midst of a pandemic where PCR tests are frequently used to diagnose COVID-19  – without clarifying his comments were tied to HIV, not the coronavirus. Health experts say the tests are the most accurate and reliable tests available for diagnosing . PCR technology has also advanced since Mullis made the comments in the 1990s.  
USA TODAY has previously debunked claims that PCR tests can’t discern different strains, or that the tests are vaccines in disguise. Health officials say the chance of a false positive with a PCR test is extremely low, and the test cannot mistake COVID-19 for influenza. 
Fact check: CDC is withdrawing its PCR COVID-19 test, but not because it confuses viruses
Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim that Mullis said PCR tests can detect “anything in anybody” and can’t tell you if you’re sick, because it can be misleading without additional information. The quote included in the post is from 1997, and Mullis was speaking about how he opposed using PCR tests to detect the HIV virus. The comment is not related to COVID-19, and health experts say PCR tests are accurate and reliable in detecting COVID-19.
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Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.


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