Personnel prepare and process PCR and antibody tests of people who think they may be infected with the novel coronavirus (Covid-19), at the laboratory of the Karolinska Hospital in Solna near Stockholm on December 7, 2020. (AFP / Jonathan Nackstrand)

Online posts falsely claim Sweden stopped using PCR tests for Covid-19 in May 2021

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A claim has been shared in multiple Facebook posts since May 2021 that Sweden stopped using PCR tests for diagnosing Covid-19 as these tests are purportedly unable to detect contagiousness. The claim is false: Sweden continues to use PCR tests in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19 as of June 4, 2021.  Swedish health authorities use clinical criteria -- not PCR tests -- to assess whether someone infected with the virus is still contagious.  

The claim was shared in this graphic posted on Facebook on May 19, 2021.

The graphic reads: “Sweden stops using PCR Tests / The PCR technology cannot distinguish between viruses capable of infecting cells and viruses that have been neutralized by the immune system and therefore these tests cannot be used to determine whether someone is contagious.”

A screenshot of the misleading Facebook post as of June 3, 2021.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests are the most commonly used method to detect the presence of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

The PCR test has been subject to misinformation since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with false claims surrounding its accuracy and widespread false positives.

Other instances of the claim that Sweden stopped using PCR tests for Covid-19 have been shared in Facebook posts here, here and here

However, the claim is false. 

The Public Health Agency of Sweden (Folkhälsomyndigheten)  confirmed to AFP on May 20, 2021 that the country has not halted the use of PCR tests and intends to continue using them. 

“Approximately 350,000 PCR tests were carried out weekly in Sweden in April/May. A total of 9.7 million tests have been carried out so far. The plan is to continue with a high test capacity [for] a long period of time,” a spokesperson from the agency told AFP.

A page on the agency’s website about Covid-19 testing states that “PCR tests are currently used on a large scale” in Sweden. The guidelines were last updated on May 24, 2021.

Multiple keyword searches online did not find any credible government or media reports as of June 4, 2021 that Sweden has stopped using PCR tests.

Official guidelines

Swedish health authorities use clinical criteria --not PCR tests -- to determine whether someone infected with the virus is still contagious.  

This advisory published by the Public Health Agency of Sweden states: “It is the number of days that have passed since you fell ill and how long you have been free of symptoms that determine when you stop being infectious.” 

This accompanying guidance reads: “Peak infectiousness of SARS-CoV-2 most likely occurs just before, until a few days after, onset of disease.

“It is not possible to measure infectiousness with a PCR-test as viral RNA may be detected for weeks but the test cannot differ between RNA from infectious virus or from viral debris.

“For this reason the criteria for considering a person as non-infectious is based mainly on clinical criteria and time from first symptoms.”

The agency recommends people who have isolated at home and tested positive in a PCR or antigen test can be considered non-infectious “after at least 48 hours with no fever and general improvement when at least 7 days have passed since onset of symptoms.”

Individuals are likely to be at their most infectious just before and after symptoms start, according to a report published on media organisation The Conversation.

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