Elon Musk has tested positive for Covid-19, he tweeted today.
And, surprisingly, negative.
If Elon Musk is indeed positive for Covid-19, it’s not a great shock. Musk, who says he has “symptoms of a typical cold … nothing unusual so far” has been fairly cavalier about Covid-19, including keeping his Fremont plant open in defiance of local regulations early on in the pandemic.
Musk’s tweet suggests that at least one form of Covid-19 testing is seriously inaccurate. But a doctor says he’s misunderstanding the results and probably using the wrong test.
The test Musk mentions is the BD Veritor test, which is supposed to show results in 15 minutes based on nasal swabs. It has not yet been FDA cleared or approved and is only in early use due to the current emergency situation of a global pandemic. It could provide negative results if viral loads are low.
“Antigen tests are notorious for insensitivity,” says Dr. Able Lawrence, a professor of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology. “This is actually a misuse of antigen tests … 50% sensitivity means the test would give a positive result only half the time even if the person really has coronavirus. Which is exactly what happened.”
Antigen tests look for proteins that live on the SARS-CoV-2 virus’ surface, and are often wrong, with a 10-20% error range. The advantage of antigen tests, Dr. Lawrence says, is speed and availability at point of care without any equipment. That speed can help medical professions green-light treatment or admission into specialized Covid facilities.
But clearly, they have their downsides.
Given the inconclusive results, Musk says he’s “getting PCR tests from separate labs.” The results of these additional tests will not come instantly, but will take about 24 hours. PCR, or polymerase chain reaction tests are different than antigen tests: they look for the actual virus itself, but also have a risk of being inaccurate.
They are currently, however, considered the best option for accurate Covid-19 testing.
According to the Covid Tracking Project, one in 378 US residents tested positive for COVID-19 this week, and hospitalizations have nearly doubled in the past two weeks. Healthcare systems are reaching or at capacity in many places.
“The number of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States has nearly doubled in the past two weeks, and hospitalizations increased in 47 states,” the Covid Tracking Project says. “The dangerous spike in hospitalizations suggests that further increases in the number of fatalities are imminent. Twenty-seven states this week hit a record for the number of new cases reported.”
Given the length of time it takes for PCR testing, it will be at least a day before Musk has a more firm diagnosis. He seems, however, to be taking the suspense in stride.
Musk has been something of a Covid-19 skeptic and has said he would not take a future vaccine as late as September 30.
“I’m not at risk for Covid, nor are my kids,” Musk said on “Sway,” a New York Times podcast.
Depending on his upcoming test results and — hopefully — some competent medical counsel, he may have cause to update that opinion.