On Friday, Elon Musk tweeted he tested twice positive and twice negative for COVID-19 after taking four different rapid tests. “Something extremely bogus is going,” he started his tweet, which caused a lot of people who actually know how these tests work to shake their heads. This wasn’t the first time the SpaceX chief executive has made coronavirus-skeptic statements, and an academic was quick to point out why Musk was not only in the wrong, but also that he was essentially behaving like a ‘Space Karen’.
In a twitter reply, Emma Bell, a bioinformatics postdoc from Canada, lectured Musk on what rapid antigen tests are supposed to work like, explaining that his results aren’t unusual. She also quickly quipped that Musk is basically the ‘space Karen’ of the internet. ‘Karen’ is a pejorative slang term for an angry, entitled, sometimes racist white suburban woman who likes to be the center of attention and often blows a misunderstanding out of proportion.
Of course, the internet took over and had a blast. For instance, Karens are often depicted in memes by stock photos of white women with bob haircuts, which was hilariously photoshopped over Musk’s mug.
Rapid antigen tests look for fragments of coronavirus protein and typically give up a result in under half an hour. They’re also cheap, which makes them great tools for monitoring outbreaks in large groups of people. However, what convenience is traded for accuracy.
After he took his four antigen tests, Musk said he got the much more reliable P.C.R-based tests, which are considered the gold standard in infectious disease. But the billionaire still didn’t stop posting Karen like posts.
There are four coronaviruses that are known to cause the common cold. These are 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1, which usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses. But these are only four out of 200 or so different viruses that cause the common cold, most of which are rhinoviruses, a totally different class of patogen. The huge diversity of viruses is one of the reasons why we don’t have a universal vaccine yet for the common cold.
Musk’s reluctance to take this pandemic seriously isn’t surprising or new. In March, Musk tweeted to his 30-million followers that “My guess is that the panic will cause more harm than the virus.” Two months later he threatened to move his Tesla factory out of California when the company was ordered to shut it down due to the health crisis.