The Washington Huskies might play college football in 2020, after all.
The Pac-12 has entered into an agreement with diagnostic health care manufacturer Quidel Corporation to implement daily rapid-results COVID-19 testing for close-contact sports across all of its campuses, the conference announced Thursday. The improved testing will also significantly reduce the amount of contact tracing required on each campus.
The Pac-12 and Quidel plan to use the subsequent test results in a “large-population research study” to advance the understanding of COVID-19 and help prevent its spread.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a media webinar on Thursday that the price of the conference’s arrangement with Quidel Corp. is confidential.
Quidel’s “Sofia 2” testing machines will produce results in just 15 minutes, per Scott. These “highly accurate” point-of-care tests can be run on each individual campus and will be distributed to all Pac-12 institutions by the end of September.
“This enables us to know every day, before every athletic practice or game, that everyone participating tested negative for COVID-19,” Scott said. “This access to daily rapid-result testing, simply put, is game-changing.”
Oregon State University senior associate athletic director Dr. Doug Aukerman added that “the frequency of the testing has to be daily or every other day, at least, in order to really be effective in doing what we’re trying to do.”
Theoretically, that testing frequency should prevent outbreaks from spreading throughout Pac-12 athletics programs. Dr. Kim Harmon — the section head of sports medicine and football team physician for UW — stated that “the mathematical models suggest that if you do daily testing that’s rapid turnaround, you can catch all the infections before they become actually infectious [to others] and then get them out of that pool so that they can’t spread [within a team].”
“Our athletes will be no more at risk than the [other] students that are on campus, and maybe at less risk because of the frequent testing,” Harmon added. “So I think that this is a safe way that we can go back to sport. I’m very excited to move forward and very grateful that we have this opportunity.”
When the Pac-12 voted on Aug. 11 to postpone all fall sports through the end of the year, testing capacity was listed as one of three prominent medical issues — along with community prevalence of COVID-19 and long-term health outcomes related to the virus — preventing the resumption of play.
Specifically, the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Board presented a document to the conference’s presidents and chancellors stating that “testing capacity needs to increase to allow for more frequent testing, performed closer to game time, and with more rapid turn-around time to prevent spread of infection and enhance the safety of all student-athletes, coaches, and staff involved, particularly in situations where physical distancing and mask wearing cannot be maintained. This will require access to significant capacity of point-of-care testing and rapid turn-around time, which is currently very limited.”
At the time, Pac-12 leadership did not expect rapid point-of-care testing to become available until late November, Scott said Thursday.
But, while the Pac-12’s partnership with Quidel certainly appears “game-changing,” it’s not the only factor that will allow Washington to begin playing games.
“This is a very important and significant step,” Scott said. “But there are other considerations that will go into our return-to-play. First and foremost, government approvals and public health authority approvals. We still have six universities — our four California schools, our two Oregon schools — that don’t have the requisite approval from public health authorities to engage in contact practice at the moment.
“So even if we were ready to start tomorrow, we couldn’t start what we think of as training camp and getting ready for the season.”
Should all Pac-12 institutions receive the aforementioned approval from local health authorities to resume contact practices and competitions, Scott emphasized that a six-week training camp would be necessary in football before teams will be prepared to play games. Given the arrival of point-of-care testing on Pac-12 campuses by the end of September, that would mean the earliest possible start date for a conference-only season is mid-November.
But Scott added he’s “hopeful” that Thursday’s news will allow for both football and basketball to be played prior to Jan. 1.
The conference is studying the link between COVID-19 and cardiac side effects such as myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart muscle — as well. Harmon said Thursday that the Pac-12 and Harvard are partnering on a national research study “that’s actually well underway to collect all the data and all the testing that’s been done throughout the country so we can answer some of those questions. We don’t have the answers right now, but we’re going to hopefully have preliminary answers within a month or two.”
Even so, Aukerman added that “I wouldn’t think we would have to have absolute clarity” on the link between COVID-19 and myocarditis to move forward with the resumption of play. UW performs cardiac testing on all returning UW athletes and, according to Harmon, “we have been reassured by what we’ve seen at this point.”
Doug Bryant — the president and CEO of Quidel Corporation, which is based out of San Diego — acknowledged Thursday that they have also entered into individual partnerships with several “well known” athletics programs outside of the Pac-12, but none of those programs’ protocols call for daily testing. He added that they have not engaged in discussions with other conferences at large.
Scott touted Quidel as the “innovation leader in COVID diagnostic tests” and said that Quidel produced the first PCR test and nasal swab antigen test to be approved nationally by the Food and Drug Administration.
Both Scott and Bryant repeatedly emphasized the widespread research benefits that will accompany the conference’s testing partnership.
“This hasn’t been done before,” Scott said. “With this demographic and the frequency of the testing, there’s going to be data and feedback that I think will inform how we return to school, how we return to work, and how we return our economy to the normalcy we all desperately want.”
That normalcy won’t be felt in Seattle on Saturday, when Washington was originally slated to host Michigan in its 2020 season opener. Despite the Pac-12 and Big Ten Conferences postponing their fall seasons, the other three Power Five Conferences — the SEC, ACC and Big 12 — are continuing to move forward with fall football schedules. The first FBS game was played between Central Arkansas and UAB on Thursday evening.
Meanwhile, even in the most optimistic projections, a Pac-12 football season remains several months away. But Thursday’s news provides hope, at least, that college football could be played on the West Coast sooner than anyone imagined.