NBA players, staff asked to help virus researchers

Dr. Priya Sampathkumar gets asked by her two teen-aged sons every day when they can expect to see NBA games again.

She’s among the doctors desperately trying to answer that question — and the NBA is now trying to help.

Sampathkumar is on the staff at the Mayo Clinic, which is starting to get support from the NBA and its players for a study that will aim to shed more light on how antibody testing can help the medical world further understand COVID-19. NBA teams were told this week about the study through an invitation for players and staff to volunteer to take part.

“I think this is one step towards understanding when we might be able to open things back up,” said Sampathkumar, the Mayo Clinic’s Chair of the Immunization and the Infection Prevention and Control Specialty Councils. “It’s certainly not that at the end of the study, we’re not going to be able to say, ‘OK, on X, Y and Z date everything can open up again.’”

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But every little bit helps right now, which is why the NBA asked teams to assist, if possible. Teams were told that the study would also help doctors understand the prevalence of COVID-19 among infected individuals who were asymptomatic or experienced only mild symptoms.

“From a team perspective, and saying this broadly across all teams, participation across the NBA allows for more robust information from the community at large in providing prevalence data,” said Dr. Jimmie Mancell, the team physician for the Memphis Grizzlies.

It’s a relatively simple process: Teams will receive materials from researchers, then have phlebotomists collect specimens that will be shipped back to the Mayo Clinic. Participants will also have to fill out a survey to gauge their level of potential exposure. Within two days, test results will be known — and because this is about antibodies, it will not take resources away from those doing other testing to identify those who are sick with the virus.

Additional goals of the study include being able to identify more patients who could donate plasma and improve care for patients who are dealing with the coronavirus, plus potentially move researchers closer to a vaccine.

“It really has a couple of different potential goals in the sense that one is that it does help to assess the prevalence of antibodies within society in general and certainly for those players who participate with the NBA in terms of exposure,” said Dr. John DiFiori, the NBA’s director of sports medicine. “But it also is a study that is attempting to do sort of a higher-level validation of a tool that will be more easy at point of care or at home. So, it has two parts to it.”

The virus has infected more than 3.6 million people worldwide and killed over a quarter-million, according to a tally through Wednesday by Johns Hopkins University. Experts believe the actual number of infections and deaths are higher than what has been officially reported by government agencies.

The NBA has not played since March 11. Some teams are reopening facilities on Friday for voluntary workouts, though most are waiting until next week or beyond. And there is no plan to end the shutdown anytime soon.

“Obviously, the goal here is to help support research,” DiFiori said. “And the more participation that we have, the better we’re able to achieve that.”

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