Pac-12 initiative for rapid-results testing boosts optimism for season
The Pac-12 revealed encouraging news for the hopes of a conference football season Thursday in announcing an agreement with Quidel Corporation to "implement up to daily testing" for COVID-19 with rapid-response capabilities for student-athletes.
In its news release, the Pac-12 called the agreement "a major step toward the safe return of sports competition in the Pac-12."
Per the release, Quidel’s Sofia 2 testing machines and tests are expected to be delivered to each of the Pac-12’s athletic departments by the end of September 2020.
“This is a major step toward the safe resumption of Pac-12 sport competitions,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement. “The availability of a reliable test that can be administered daily, with almost immediate results, addresses one of the key concerns that was expressed by our medical advisory committee, as well as by student-athletes, coaches and others. At the same time, our partnership with Quidel, the industry leader in point-of-care antigen testing, will provide crucial research data that will benefit our members’ communities as well as the entire country.”
Scott, Quidel Corporation president and CEO Douglas Bryant, Oregon State associate athletic director Dr. Doug Aukerman (chair of the Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health & Well-Being Initiative) and Dr. Kim Harmon (section Head of Sports Medicine for the University of Washington) participated in a subsequent Zoom call with reporters to further address the ramifications of the news.
It was made clear that the availability of the daily, rapid-response testing was initially not expected until late November, and that the testing logistics helped inform the Pac-12's decision last month to cancel all sports until at least Jan. 1. So now that these testing advances are is arriving ahead of schedule, what does that mean for the possibility of playing Pac-12 football sooner than Jan. 1?
In short, it's too soon to know, but that possibility will at least be under consideration.
"When we made our decision to not start competition before Jan. 1, it was based on the information in front of us leading with what public health authorities will allow us to do and not having access to the kind of testing we will now have access to by the end of the month thanks to Doug and his group," Scott said. "So we've got to constantly reevaluate in light of these circumstances. We've got scenario planning groups made up of our coaches, athletics directors, other football administrators. Our new lead Merton Hanks is going to be leading that effort with Mark Harlan -- Utah athletics director, who is on our football oversight committee. They'll be looking at all of these scenarios.
"But again, some of this is still outside our control in terms of public health authorities being comfortable with the kind of contact required for football practice and training camp. As you know, we've been really clear and open and transparent, we need a full six weeks in the sport of football to feel safe and mitigate possibility of injuries. So we're only going to go about this in a way that we feel comfortable that the health and safety of the student-athletes is well looked after and not cut it too fine. What we can't predict is when we're going to get the approvals from government authorities. This testing piece is a big step forward and I'm hopeful that does open up possibilities to start competition before Jan. 1, but that decision has not been taken yet."
Scott reiterated that even if the Pac-12 wanted to begin football training camps tomorrow, six of its schools -- including USC -- do not have the approval or clearance to do so per local health authorities in the states of California and Oregon.
In fact, USC paused all football (and men's water polo) workouts on Aug. 26 after a breakout of eight positive COVID-19 cases between those two teams and later announced those workouts will remain on hold through at least Sept. 8 with one additional student-athlete testing positive.
"This is a very important and significant step, but there's other considerations that will go into our return to play. First and foremost, government approvals, public health authority approvals," Scott said. "... So there's more to be done for sure in terms of working with public health officials. ... This ability to have daily testing with immediate results is a huge step forward for us, but some of those other considerations are going to be paramount before we can declare when we're likely to resume."
The logic as to why daily rapid-result testing changes the equation for the Pac-12 is that it would in theory allow for assurances that no athlete who is infected by the virus would get on the practice or playing field and be able to spread infection, whereas presently there is a lag time between testing and when results are delivered along with the present logistical inability to test everyone every day.
"In terms of the frequency of testing and being able to pull people out before they're infectious, there's mathematical models that would suggest that if you do daily testing that's rapid turnaround that you can catch all the infections before they become actually infectious and then get them out of that pool so that they can't spread," Harmon said. "That's one of the real advantages to that rapid turnaround is that you know the results right then and that person who is potentially infected doesn't go around and spread it for 24 hours while you're waiting for the results to come back. So these rapid tests should be able to detect infection before people become infectious, so theoretically when people are out there on the field they're not going to infect each other. That has big implications in terms of who you need to quarantine because theoretically there is an argument to be made that you would not need to quarantine others on the same field or court when somebody becomes positive because you knew they weren't infectious when they were playing."
Much was made back on Aug. 11 -- when the Pac-12 announced that no sports would be played in the conference until 2021 -- that the risks of the myocarditis heart condition among those infected by COVID-19 was a paramount concern and precipitating factor in the decision.
Well, there still seems to be a lack of clarity on that matter with conflicting data and reports coming out of the Big Ten as recently as Thursday. So Aukerman and Harmon were asked whether myocarditis concerns still present the same obstacle to a return to play as they seemed to a month ago, as there seems to remain confusion or uncertainty as to its prevalence in COVID-19 cases.
"Certainly I can't comment on what's going on in the Big Ten -- I don't know what's going on in the Big Ten -- but we have put together a national coalition to look at these exact questions, and that's led by the Pac-12 and Harvard. We're putting together a research study that's actually well underway to collect all the data of all the testing that's been done throughout the country so we can answer some of those questions, and we don't have the answers right now but we're going to have the answers, hopefully preliminary answers, within a month or two," Harmon said. "And I think that we don't know how much of a concern is myocarditis is in terms of how many athletes get it, but that's why we want to make sure that we can have a reasonable assurance that our athletes aren't going to spread it while they're playing sports, and that's why the testing can really help us be able to feel good about putting our athletes on the field."
In a follow-up question, Aukerman was asked whether more clarity was needed in that realm before return to play scenarios could advance.
"I wouldn't think that we'd have to have absolute clarity. As everything with this coronavirus, we are learning more about this virus and its impacts on the human body and how the human body responds to it on a weekly if not daily basis," he said. "Certainly there has been enough discussion that we're all aware of the cardiac potential. I think we are maybe hyper focused on that and not giving also due time on some of the other physical ailments that may affect from other body parts and body systems. However, certainly with daily testing, being sure that we can identify people as soon and as quickly as possible if they do obtain the infection of the coronavirus we can then do an adequate cardiac workup or other health workup down stream after the fact."
Scott, meanwhile, said he remains in regular communication with Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren -- the only other Power 5 conference to cancel the fall football season -- about trying to align their return to play timelines so that there might be possibility for postseason events between the conferences.
"Obviously it's uncharted territory and we're just trying to put one foot in front of the other at a time and letting the data and the science drive our decisions, but I said to Kevin a high priority for the Pac-12 would be trying to align our seasons in a way that not only for student-athletes could we have a Pac-12 championship game and champion but it would be awesome to have some of the traditional postseason opportunities the Pac-12 and Big Ten have enjoyed with each other over many, many decades," Scott said.
He also addressed the possibility for a basketball season starting prior to Jan. 1 and said that the conference will await a decision from the NCAA about a potential later start to the season nationally and then evaluate if that timetable is viable for the Pac-12. Nov. 25 is the present date being reported as the most likely proposal while the Pac-12 has reportedly pushed for a Dec. 4 start to basketball competition.
"Having access to this testing capability eight weeks earlier than we originally anticipated, along with the research partnership, does allow us to revisit some of our decisions when we understood it was going to be much more delayed in terms of getting access [to this testing]. Twinned with the fact that the NCAA is looking like they may push back the start will allow us to revisit," Scott said. "When we made our decision it was a Nov. 8 start for basketball, and we knew we could not be ready for that based on where we have government approvals, where we don't and we didn't have access to this kind of testing."
The overarching question was the last one asked to Scott -- given the news Thursday and the fact that college football began last week at the FCS level (with a game between Central Arkansas and Austin Peay) without any reported COVID-19 fallout, should the Pac-12 have simply delayed football and other sports rather than formally cancelling through the end of the calendar year?
"No doubt today is very good news and a major step forward, but hope has never been a strategy for the Pac-12 and our presidents and chancellors when they've made these decisions," he said. "We've said all along we're going to let the science and the data and what our public health officials are telling us drive our decision-making, and when we made our decision we didn't have the government approvals that we needed. Sitting here today we don't have the government approvals we need. If we wanted to start training camp in Oregon tomorrow in football we could not. If we wanted to start it at our four California schools, we could not. So it is a dynamic situation, a step at a time, but based on what we knew in mid-August, I think everyone is confident in the decision we made.
"And it's why I won't commit today when we're going to be returning to play in football or in basketball because there's additional issues we need to work through with our public health officials, with our campuses and all that. But make no mistake, thanks to Quidel and this partnership, this is a huge step forward and we're going to advance the data, the knowledge and society's ability to deal with COVID thanks to the research project we're going to be doing with Quidel."
Read the full Pac-12 press release below
SAN FRANCISCO - The Pac-12 Conference announced today that it has entered into an agreement with diagnostic test leader Quidel Corporation to implement up to daily testing for COVID-19 with student-athletes across all of its campuses for all close-contact sports.
The agreement is a major step toward the safe return of sports competition in the Pac-12. The arrangement with Quidel will provide for frequent testing with rapid results, which had been one of the key concerns in the prior decision by the Pac-12 to postpone sport competition. The testing will also significantly reduce the number of contact traces required and the breadth of contact tracing required, with the goal of relieving some of the burden on local health authorities, as a result of removing or significantly limiting the spread of infection through athletics activity. Any return to competition is subject to requisite approvals from public health officials.
Quidel’s Sofia 2 testing machines and tests are expected to be delivered to each of the Pac-12’s athletic departments by the end of September 2020. Over the coming weeks, the Pac-12 plans to review this latest testing breakthrough with its sport planning committees and to evaluate the impact on return to competition scenarios.
“This is a major step toward the safe resumption of Pac-12 sport competitions,” said Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott. “The availability of a reliable test that can be administered daily, with almost immediate results, addresses one of the key concerns that was expressed by our medical advisory committee, as well as by student-athletes, coaches and others. At the same time, our partnership with Quidel, the industry leader in point-of-care antigen testing, will provide crucial research data that will benefit our members’ communities as well as the entire country.”
Douglas Bryant, Quidel’s president and CEO, said: “We are pleased to participate in this innovative arrangement that will help protect Pac-12 student-athletes and allow them to return to play while contributing to further understanding of the COVID-19 virus that will benefit all of society. With its well-established medical research program, the Pac-12 is an ideal partner to help us develop and document the most effective coronavirus testing protocol to serve our families and communities.”
Directly Addresses Concerns
At the time the Pac-12 CEO Group voted to postpone sport competitions, they cited the need for “more frequent testing, performed closer to game time, and with more rapid turn-around time”, particularly in light of the uncertainties regarding the long-term effects of COVID-19. The access to daily testing addresses those concerns, Scott noted.
The Pac-12/Quidel testing program will be key to research efforts coordinated by the Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Initiative (SAHWBI) as well as the Conference’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee, which has been advising the Conference on COVID-19 issues. The Pac-12 SAHWBI’s Research Grant Program was established by the Conference and its member universities in 2013 and has studied brain trauma, mental health, cardiovascular health, and other health and wellness issues.A key focus of the Pac-12 SAHWBI’s independent research initiative will be to document and determine if a testing protocol that involves point-of-care rapid testing immediately prior to practice or competition can decrease or eliminate the risk of infection from sport interaction as has been proposed by some experts.
“This is an opportunity to get our athletes back to activity in a careful and controlled manner while monitoring outcomes. It is win-win for athletics and to better our understanding of strategies to prevent spread during sports,” said Dr. Kimberly Harmon, section head of sports medicine for the University of Washington.
Dr. Doug Aukerman, Oregon State senior associate athletic director of sports medicine and chair of the Pac-12 SAHWBI Board, added: “This will allow us to learn even more about the behavior of the virus, especially in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals. The implication is that this can inform the broader medical community on asymptomatic cases as well as our care and treatment for student-athletes.”
In addition to significantly decreasing the risk of spreading the infection in student-athletes, coaches and staff members through sport, a daily testing protocol will also reduce the potential burden on local health authorities to carry out widespread contact tracing.
“Pac-12 universities and their medical research centers are performing significant and important research to better understand and combat COVID-19,” added Scott. “The study to be conducted with Quidel fits into the broader educational and research missions of our universities, and will provide important new data and information that will be beneficial to society more broadly.”