I hope my leg don’t break…

…walking on the Moon.

OK, maybe it’s time for an update on the UK Government’s stupidly named “Moonshot” testing programme, since my hopes that Boris Johnson would have quietly forgotten it have been dashed. Like so many reasonable hopes, this year.

For it is being rolled out, with the help of the military, in town after town – characteristically before any assessment of its value and problems, just like lockdowns, masks, track and trace, vaccines, etc, etc, etc, etc.

The name of the project is, obviously, an attempt to get the malleable propagandized public to identify with J. F. Kennedy’s “Can Do” Apollo project. It neglects the fact that younger generations don’t even remember that, let alone get stirred by it. And it forgets that a beleaguered and divided Britain, weighed down with financial and medical deficits, is not an optimistic and successful USA (but then neither is the USA now). Nations don’t rally round the launchpad when they’re feeling “Moonshot, schmoonshot. I just need my life back.”

The idea is to test 10 million people a day, or the whole population every week, with the promise that it will enable life to return to normal. That can only mean isolating all the positives, and their contacts, for a week or two, and releasing everybody else to mix as if they were human beings again, if the ONS stats look OK.

The cost of this project, at £100 billion in the year, is almost as much as the entire NHS budget of £130 billion, which has historically been considered near-unaffordable and is by far the biggest item in the UK budget. The Moonshot will cost more than 1/8 of the total government spending in 2016-7, and so will add around £1500 of liability to every man, woman and child in the country.

For a family of four on one median salary, it will therefore cost 20% of gross income, but as more than 3 million people are projected to be unemployed next year, the actual cost in taxes will, at some stage, be much more.

That’s the cost – what’s the benefit? Currently, most testing is done by PCR, which I critiqued here. The bottom line is that we have no idea, even now, how many of its results are false positives, or false negatives, for that matter, because there is no gold standard viral assay with which to calibrate it, even a year on.

The dirty little open secret is that this is because SARS-CoV-2 has never been isolated. There is no guarantee that the RNA sequences being tested are not also present in the myriad other viruses in the human body. Nobody talks about it, I guess, because it’s buried under a Mount Everest of other dirty little secrets surrounding this pandemic.

So if PCR were used for the Moonshot, its false positive rate of, at best guess, around 1% would guarantee 10,000 new “cases” going into isolation every single day, even if the virus had disappeared completely.

But the Moonshot will not depend on PCR, it seems, but on the new “quick tests” that give a result in 20 minutes or so. These are not PCR, but detect certain antigens by another method. The down side, or the up side, is that they are far less sensitive than PCR: according to reports they only pick up around 50% of infections.

The negative result of that is that it would appear that half the infected people will still be wandering around the population instead of quarantining. The positive is that there will be far fewer of the false positives caused by PCR’s over-sensitivity.

But hold on a minute – that percentage sensitivity can only be only estimated by comparison with PCR, there being no viral assay gold standard. And it’s not clear what PCR cycle threshold was used to make that estimate, and any case, the cycle threshold used varies widely from lab to lab and nation to nation. So the quick test has been calibrated against a test which itself has not been calibrated against reality, and cannot be for the immediate future. It’s the equivalent of calibrating omens by reference to horoscopes, though with a lower evidence-base.

There is simply no way of knowing the Antigen Test’s false positive and negative rates, because there is no gold standard by which to judge. But like PCR testing, doing the test on a massive scale in an asymptomatic population can have no other result than generating thousands of false positives, and hence crippling the country both directly, by keeping tens of thousands of healthy people out of circulation, and indirectly by giving the false impression that there is still an epidemic going on. This is the only POSSIBLE outcome.

Actually, an additional outcome would be possible if it weren’t for the evidence, on all other grounds, that COVID-19 is no longer an epidemic, but an endemic seasonal coronavirus. If we were still in a pandemic, then a screening test with such a low (and incalculable) sensitivity would be little better than chance in detecting infections, and preventing their spread. It would be as effective in controlling disease as mandating social distancing for every other person. This is entirely obvious to anyone with half a brain from the basic information we have on the tests.

For all we will gain from it, then, the UK Moonshot may as well be pouring our gold reserves into the sea: in fact, the comparison is exact, because the Bank of England has only £100 billion in gold reserves.

Skeptics in 1970 questioned whether the USA might have spent its money better on feeding its poor rather than “pouring its love out on the Moon.” But the Apollo program undoubtedly boosted Americans’ pride, advanced science and technology, and fired human imgaination around the world. Our own Moonshot is just a worse-than-useless money-pit, using our money without even consulting us. We’ll even get batoned, handcuffed and fined if more than two of us protest about it together.

Still, living in a world of utter folly, coercion and lies is becoming so familiar this year that, like the prisoner in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag huddling alone in rags to seem invisible to the oppressors, it has started to become a way of life. For the moment, at least a few people may notice the scrap of paper in his hand saying, “I’m not the lunatic,” at least until the guards snatch it away as divisive hate-speech.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply