On Saturday, the Federal Drug Administration approved a low-cost (as little as $4.00), saliva-based COVID-19 test capable of producing results within hours (as opposed to days). Developed by the Yale School of Public Health (in partnership with the NBA), the simple, non-invasive test does not require the use of a specific swab or collection device and can be processed in certified labs across the country (expected cost +/- $10). SalivaDirect (which is not reliant on reagents, in short supply) is expected to make testing much more accessible, while simultaneously reducing turnaround times for results and the costs associated with monitoring for the Coronavirus. Andy Slavitt, a former Acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama, called the advancement in diagnostics “one of the first major game-changers in fighting the pandemic.”
Our Take: Marc Ganis—the president and co-founder of sports business consulting firm Sportscorp., who is sometimes referred to as the 33rd NFL owner—said news of the FDA approval was “not unexpected [in ownership circles]. The NBA and the NFL have both been expecting—[for at least the last three months]—saliva-based tests, with a 95%+ degree of accuracy, to be available before the end of August. It may be one of the reasons that the [two] leagues have been more optimistic about [their ability to] put things together than some political officials and media people have [been].”
The NBA is testing players daily (the NFL is doing the same), but there is roughly a 24-hour lag in results under the current testing protocol. While the league has managed to avoid an outbreak within the bubble thus far, the daylong delay leaves an extended period for asymptomatic players (or staff) to spread the virus. The SalivaDirect test will enable teams to get results within a few hours. “By knowing if someone has tested positive sooner, teams can contract trace sooner and isolate sooner,” Ganis said. And presumably they can eliminate the possibility of the team-wide outbreaks seen with MLB’s Marlins and Cardinals. It’s worth mentioning that the NBA has been using SalivaDirect to test asymptomatic players within the bubble. By contrast, MLB teams—which have rapid in-house antibody and PCR testing capabilities—are only using those options on players who test positive during teams’ standard testing procedures (which also have a 24-hour delay). As of Monday morning, MLB clubs had not received any formal information from the league office as it relates to SalivaDirect or a potential change in protocol.
If SalivaDirect is a game-changer, the diagnostics advancements the NFL and NBA are expecting to come down the pike over the next several weeks are season-changers. Ganis said he “has heard that there will be testing with rapid results available in less than 30 minutes—while someone waits—with portable [processing] units; meaning they can be installed at entrances” (think: boarding buses, entering a stadium). Having testing equipment on-site, capable of producing accurate results in a matter of minutes would make a “massive difference; not just for sports but for people going to work, school, stores, restaurants and public places.” NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline agreed, telling Rich Eisen, “If [the tests] really do emerge and they become widespread and available, well that’s a paradigm shift.”
The availability of rapid testing that does not require the use of a lab should allow pro sports to once again be played safely outside of a bubble. While the NBA and NHL are not going to leave Orlando or Toronto/Edmonton before the end of the 2019-20 season, “[the advancements in testing should] certainly allow them to plan to play next season in [teams’] home arenas,” Ganis said. Assuming the FDA approves the tests, the SportsCorp. President said rapid testing could be available to clubs as early as next month.
College sports should also benefit from having access to cheaper, faster testing. Remember, it was the cost of testing and supply chain limitations that made compliance with NCAA mandates a challenge. For what it’s worth, one Pac-12 athletic director said they did not believe the conference could reverse course on football at this point—even if rapid testing were to become available. “[Football] is too big of a ship to turn. [Schools would] have about two weeks max to pivot,” they said. While the emergence of a rapid testing solution might be a little late for Pac-12 or Big Ten football, it would seemingly allow basketball within both conferences to proceed as originally scheduled—without the need for a bubble.
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