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Pac-12’s ‘groundbreaking’ partnership with testing leader could expedite return to field

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Faculty members from Washington State University Health Sciences Spokane administer COVID-19 tests to students at a mobile testing site during the coronavirus pandemic on campus, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, in Pullman. Pullman has seen a large increase in COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks.  (Associated Press)
Faculty members from Washington State University Health Sciences Spokane administer COVID-19 tests to students at a mobile testing site during the coronavirus pandemic on campus, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, in Pullman. Pullman has seen a large increase in COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks. (Associated Press)

When the Pac-12 announced it was postponing fall sports until Jan. 1, the conference gave every indication it wouldn’t make a safe return to the playing field until there was a major breakthrough in COVID-19 testing.

It appears that breakthrough has been made, and much earlier than expected.

On Thursday, the same day Washington State was originally scheduled to open the first season under coach Nick Rolovich, at Utah State, the conference announced a “groundbreaking” partnership with Quidel Corporation, a leader in diagnostic testing known for its Sofia 2 machines that offer rapid results.

The conferences is billing the partnership as “a major step toward the safe resumption of Pac-12 sport competitions,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said, indicating in a webinar with reporters it could be a “pathway” toward competition taking place before the original Jan. 1 date.

Quidel will distribute its Sofia 2 testing machines, which offer results in 15 minutes or fewer and give programs the capacity to offer daily testing, to each of the Pac-12 schools by the end of September.

“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,” Scott said. “At the same time, our partnership with Quidel, the industry leader in point-of-care antigen testing, will provide crucial research data that will benefit our members’ communities as well as the entire country.”

While the development offers some hope for a restart before Jan. 1, that would also be largely dependent on local health ordinances in various Pac-12 states, namely California and Oregon, relaxing restrictions.

“This is a very important and significant step, but there’s other considerations that will go into our return to play,” Scott said. “First and foremost, government approvals, public health authority approvals. We still have six universities – our four California schools, our two Oregon schools – that don’t have the requisite health approvals from public health authorities to engage in contact practice.

“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.

“Some of this is still outside our control.”

Regardless of when a hypothetical Pac-12 fall season would start, Scott reiterated schools would need a six-week ramp-up period before games could begin. With rapid testing not available to schools until the end of September, conference football games could not conceivably start until mid-November at the earliest.

The commissioner believes teaming with Quidel could open up new possibilities for the Pac-12 college basketball season, which also isn’t slated to begin until Jan. 1 under the guidelines the conference announced early last month.

Multiple reports have suggested the NCAA’s men’s and women’s basketball oversight committee are targeting a Nov. 25 start date for the 2020-21 college hoops season.

The Pac-12 has encouraged the NCAA to consider later start dates, but Scott said Thursday, “I’m hopeful today’s news and what’s coming from the NCAA will provide us a pathway to start before Jan. 1.”

Doug Bryant, the President and CEO of Quidel Corporation, said on Thursday’s media webinar his company is already engaged in partnerships with “several” major college football programs around the country “for a short period of time,” but to this point it’s not had discussions with other conferences.

Scott did not disclose the financial details of the Pac-12’s partnership with Quidel.

COVID-19’s side effects, including the heart condition myocarditis, played a significant role in the research that led to the Pac-12 postponing fall sports.

The conference continues to study myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart muscle, but Aukerman believes the Pac-12 wouldn’t require “absolute clarity” on how COVID-19’s side effects could harm athletes in order to resume full-contact sports.

“Certainly, the opportunity to be able to test daily helps mitigate several of those concerns we had prior, but at that point in time we did not have the ability to do point of care daily testing and did not see that on the horizon in talking to numerous vendors,” said Dr. Doug Aukerman, Oregon State’s athletic director for sports medicine.

“… There’s no question the frequency of the testing has to be daily, or every other day at least in order to be really effective doing what we’re trying to do.”

In the pre-COVID-19 world, the Cougars were scheduled to open the 2020 season Thursday in Logan, Utah, against Utah State.

The revised 10-game, conference-only schedule moved WSU’s opener to Sept, 26, at home against Utah, before the Pac-12 scrapped the season altogether.

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