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Wolves, Mayo Clinic leading leaguewide coronavirus study

The NBA season has been on hiatus since March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The road back to basketball returning is an unknown one, but antibody testing could provide a key piece in that process.

Per ESPN’s Malika Andrews and Adrian Wojnarowski, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic are leading a leaguewide study that aims to show what percentage of NBA players, coaches and executives have antibodies to the coronavirus.

The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reports that the NBA is looking into “group testing,” which aims to examine a large number of people with a few tests.

Timberwolves doctor Dr. Robby Sikka is spearheading the antibody initiative, which is expected to have the participation of all 30 teams, ESPN reports. National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts told The Ringer that players are willing to provide antibody samples.

“Our players have embraced the opportunity to contribute to this important public health study that will help researchers better understand the prevalence of COVID-19, potentially improve care for patients, and promote long-term efforts to develop a vaccine and treatment for the virus,” Roberts told The Ringer.

Teams are beginning to re-open practice facilities to players around the NBA and teams are seeking information about mitigating the risk of infection for players and staff. Sikka is one of 10 people on the NBA’s sports science committee and has become a key resource for the league in its mitigation efforts.

“We are learning about this disease,” Sikka told ESPN. “We have learned a lot in two months. So if we can take the next two months, learn on the fly, mitigate risk, then we can move pretty quickly to do the right things to have safe play.”

The NBA’s antibody study is expected to be completed in June and in assessing the prevalence of antibodies, NBA personnel will help teams identify which people might have less of a risk of contracting COVID-19.

Antibody testing is new and doctors are working to understand what the prevalence of antibodies means. It is mostly unclear that even if a person tests positive for coronavirus antibodies how long they have immunity to coronavirus. The Associated Press reported in early May that NBA teams were told about the antibody study that was seeking players and staff to voluntarily participate in.

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,” Dr. Jimmie Mancell, the team physician for the Memphis Grizzlies, told The Associated Press.

In group testing, multiple individuals are “grouped” together into the same lab test. This could be done randomly or by mixing samples from members of the same team. This helps reduce the number of coronavirus tests that would be needed and, if the test is positive, those people’s samples would be retested to locate which individual in the group are responsible for the positive test.

In the proposed antibody study, blood samples will be collected from those involved using finger prick methods and blood draws. In a memo that was sent to teams that was reviewed by ESPN, the Mayo Clinic hopes the study will help validate the less invasive method and make widespread antibody testing available for the general public.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.