Report: NBA preparing teams for league-wide COVID-19 testing program

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The NBA is reportedly preparing teams for an eventual league-wide COVID-19 testing program that would be an integral part of any wider ranging plan to resume the 2019-20 season, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Teams were informed that the league is engaged in conversations with national coronavirus testing providers — BioReference Laboratories, LabCorp, Quest Diagnostics and Vault Health/RUCDR Infinite Biologics at Rutgers — Charania reported, with teams being asked to create an account with each company.

Expanding the league’s testing capacity — without jeopardizing the public’s supply of tests — has consistently been seen as a key component in any return-to-play plan.

The novel coronavirus is highly transmissible even among asymptomatic carriers — people who do not display any symptoms — but that isn’t the only reason the league would need to secure a significant number of tests to consistently ensure the safety of its players.

Research in China suggested that the RT-PCR tests — the most common way of determining the presence of coronavirus in an individual — can return false negatives up to 30 per cent of the time, although other studies have found that, when conducted properly, the test results are accurate over 90 per cent of the time. Still, in either the best- or worst-case scenario, the possibility would remain that a single test doesn’t identify a carrier of the virus.

Even in an isolated “bubble city” concept, which has recently been reported as one of the league’s preferred approaches to resuming the season, all it could take is one asymptomatic carrier or one false negative to potentially trigger an outbreak.

To help mitigate this risk, according to Charania, NBA commissioner Adam Silver also told the players he expects to have daily COVID-19 testing when the league resumes play — with no stoppage necessary in case an athlete tests positive, in which case the player would go into isolation.

To that end, in addition to increasing the volume of tests it is able to do, the league has also reportedly been researching the possibility of using a sampling procedure called “group testing,” which could help cut back on the number of tests needed, according to Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.

Group testing was created during World War II by Robert Dorfman, a statistician, to identify and remove men from the army who had contracted syphilis. In group testing, several samples from multiple individuals are taken and grouped together in one single lab test. If the single test is positive, then the samples it was made from would be separately re-tested to identify which individual within the group was responsible for the positive test result.

Research teams in Germany, Israel and the United States have found grouped samples can successfully detect COVID-19.

In theory, for the NBA, groups could be created randomly or done on a team-by-team basis.

Using the team possibility as an example: There are 13 active players on the Toronto Raptors’ roster. A sample could be taken from each individual player, and then grouped into a larger team sample. This single team sample would then be tested in a lab to see if the novel coronavirus is present. If it was, quarantine measures could be taken for the team and each individual player’s sample could be re-tested to determine who the carrier is.

For a single team, an approach like this could reduce the number of tests needed from 13 to one. When expanded to include every roster, coaching staff, on-site personnel and broadcast crews, the cumulative effect could significantly reduce how many lab tests the NBA needs to run daily to ensure safety.

The NBA suspended its season on March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although no concrete timeline exists for when it will be able to resume, Silver told the players’ union on May 8 that he was hoping to make some sort of decision about the future of the 2019-20 campaign within the next four weeks.