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Pac-12: Daily testing could be a ‘game-changer’ for football’s return

The league is partnering with Quidel Corporation, a diagnostics company with rapid COVID-19 testing that can produce results in 15 minutes.

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This Aug. 29, 2019, file photo shows the Pac-12 logo at Sun Devil Stadium during second half of an NCAA college football game between Arizona State and Kent State in Tempe, Ariz.

Associated Press

Editor’s note: This story has been updated. It originally published Sept. 3, 2020.

SALT LAKE CITY — A partnership between the Pac-12 and the Quidel Corporation, a diagnostic company with rapid COVID-19 testing that can produce results in 15 minutes, was announced Thursday.

“This is a major step toward the safe resumption of Pac-12 sport competitions,” conference commissioner Larry Scott said in a released 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.”

Crucial research data in the world’s battle with the coronavirus is another added benefit. The testing, which is expected to make it easier to track the infection and behavior of the virus, is being heralded as the first daily rapid-results regiment with a college athletics conference.

Scott noted that the agreement addresses the Pac-12 CEO Group’s concerns about more frequent and rapid testing. The conference’s chancellors and presidents voted unanimously last month to postpone all sports competitions until at least Jan. 1 as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“We can look our student-athletes and their families in the eye and let them know that we have a high degree of confidence that we won’t be spreading the virus by playing football.” — Larry Scott

The Quidel “Sofia 2” testing machines are expected to be on each of the Pac-12 campuses by the end of the month. The breakthrough will be evaluated over the coming weeks by planning committees studying return to competition scenarios. Utah athletics director Mark Harlan is among those meeting regularly to discuss the situation.

“This is an exciting new development that was announced today by the Pac-12. There is still much work to be done, and many details to be determined, but it is a very encouraging step forward on the path toward the safe return to sports competition,” Harlan said. “Our top priority all along has been the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff, and we will continue to keep that priority at the forefront of everything we do. Our approach will continue to be subject to the approval of public health authorities.”

Close communication with campus and Pac-12 leadership, he noted, will continue. Requisite government approval is necessary for football camps to open. Six schools in the conference (California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and USC) don’t have it yet.

“This is an opportunity to get our athletes back to activity in a careful and controlled manner while monitoring outcomes,” said Dr. Kimberly Harmon of University of Washington sports medicine. “It is win-win for athletics and to better our understanding of strategies to prevent spread during sports.”

Scott noted that the new testing opens up possibilities for the Pac-12, which is joined by the Big Ten as the only Power Five conferences to put football on hold this fall. The decision was made last month before the opening of training camps.

“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,” Scott 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 approval that we needed.” 

Scott explained that the Pac-12 is still waiting on government approvals to begin football camps in California and Oregon.

“So it’s a dynamic situation, step at a time. Based on what we knew in mid-August, I think everyone’s confident in the decision we made,” Scott said. “And it’s why I won’t commit today when we’re going to be returning to play in football or 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,” he added.

Scott went into further detail in an interview on ESPN’s College GameDay early Saturday morning. Speaking with Rece Davis, Scott noted that the partnership “could be a game-changer for us. This provides a pathway for us to safely return.”

When it comes to the testing process itself, it will quick and efficient, explained Scott.

“We are going to have a couple of machines in each of our training rooms and every football player is going to come in every day and within 15 minutes will get their test results,” he said. “In so doing we can look our student-athletes and their families in the eye and let them know that we have a high degree of confidence that we won’t be spreading the virus by playing football.”

As for concerns related to the long term side effects of contracting the virus, Scott conceded that nothing has changed on that front. Improved testing will, however, enable the Pac-12 to limit the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible, in theory protecting a greater number of athletes from dealing with any long term side effects.

“When the possibility of scarring on the heart and long term damage came forward, we said ‘OK, we have to be more cautious. We can’t increase the spread with contact sports like football and even basketball for that matter, so we need a high degree of care,’” said Scott. “This daily rapid testing, we believe, provides a pathway to get there.”

Utah team physician Dr. David Petron, who is on the Pac-12’s COVID-19 medical advisory committee, said the point-of-care testing offers a tremendous opportunity.

“This test has the ability to return results within minutes and will help in allowing the safe return of student-athletes to the playing field,” Petron explained. “The testing protocols of the Pac-12 and the ability to do research in this area will also help determine if point-of-care rapid testing can decrease or eliminate the risk of infection from sport competition.”