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If you’re a sports fan, it’s easy to think that your favorite team is a matter of life and death. 2020, however, has shown everyone just how fleeting everything can be. The coronavirus pandemic, of course, placed virtually every sport on hold; while most leagues have since resumed play, things are far from normal. The NBA isn’t content to simply play basketball in their Orlando bubble, though.

Although basketball has returned and the playoffs are on the horizon, the NBA has actually made a much larger contribution to society than entertaining fans everywhere. In fact, the league just helped the United States take a step forward in the fight against COVID-19.

The NBA felt the wrath of COVID-19 in early March

In the early days of 2020, most Americans viewed the coronavirus as a distant threat. On March 11, however, the NBA proved that wasn’t the case.

As basketball fans surely remember, a game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz failed to begin on time. After a seeming eternity in the arena, fans ultimately learned that the team wouldn’t be taking the court. Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19.

While there were some discussions about playing games in empty arenas, the league ultimately decided to suspend the season until further notice; before long, the rest of the sports world followed suit. Basketball didn’t resume until the end of July, and, even then, the entire NBA relocated to a secure bubble at Walt Disney World.

A new saliva test could help fight the coronavirus

As we’ve all heard, one of the best ways to fight the coronavirus testing; if you can quickly determine who has COVID-19, it’s easier to control the disease’s spread. In the United States, that hope may be getting closer to reality.

As laid out by Bruce Y. Lee at Forbes, the FDA recently granted a new saliva test emergency approval. While this test has the same benefits as other saliva tests—since the patient has to spit in a tube rather than undergo a nasal or throat swab, there’s less of a risk an exposure risk for medical personnel—this one carries a new advantage.

“What makes this test unique is that you don’t have to take an extra step to separate the genetic material or nucleic acid from the sample,” Lee explained. “Therefore, to perform the test labs don’t need special nucleic acid extraction kits, which have been, surprise, surprise, in short supply during the pandemic.” That will theoretically make the test quick, cheap, and accessible, allowing for more frequent and more widespread testing.

While that sounds all well and good, what does it have to do with basketball? The NBA actually played an important role in Yale’s development of the test.

The NBA supported and helped fund Yale’s new COVID-19 test

When the NBA decided to resume play, they needed to ensure that everyone inside the Orlando bubble could remain safe. Since that required frequent testing, it gave the league an opportunity to make a larger impact.

“[Earlier this year,] the Yale lab at the time did not have its own test; it had used previously existing tests to measure the accuracy of saliva testing,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe explained. “[Robby Sikka, vice president of basketball performance and technology for the Minnesota Timberwolves] and the league pitched the idea of building one, and the NBA and players’ union offered to fund it.” The league and the NBA Players Association “contributed more than $500,000 combined to fund the Yale work,” according to ESPN’s reporting.

Beyond that monetary support, the NBA also provided plenty of data points regarding the test’s accuracy. “Yale administered the saliva test to a group that included NBA players and staff in the lead-up to the league’s return to play and compared results to the nasal swab tests the same group took,” Lowe continued. “The results almost universally matched, according to published research that has not yet been peer-reviewed.”

“My goal is not to test athletes,” Yale’s Nathan Grubaugh explained. “That’s not my target population. My target population is everybody. There were concerns about partnering with the NBA when all these other people need testing. But the simple answer ended up being the NBA was going to do all this testing anyway, so why not partner with them and try to create something for everyone?”

At this point, we probably won’t see fans in NBA arenas for some time. When we do, though, it’s quite possible that the Yale saliva test will have helped us reach that point.


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