Dr. Robby Sikka has a skill that might fill other people with anxiety: cold-calling and cold e-mailing people.
But Sikka isn’t a salesman, he’s the Timberwolves vice president of basketball performance and technology. He also sits on the NBA’s sports science committee, and a few months ago he sent out one of those cold e-mails to researchers at Yale who were developing a saliva-based coronavirus test.
“I’ve just gotten used to it,” Sikka said.
The test, if Yale could develop it accurately and get approval to go to market, could significantly reduce the cost and turnaround time for finding results, the ripple effects of which could reverberate through society as a whole.
Fortunately for Sikka and the NBA, Nathan Grubaugh, one of the researchers at Yale, answered Sikka’s e-mail.
Now the test, known as SalivaDirect, has received emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration thanks in part to the NBA’s help in gauging its accuracy. It all started with a cold e-mail.
“This is something that immediately helps,” Sikka said. “It’s a plug-and-play into the world. It doesn’t mean it’s the end all, be all. But now it gets interesting because if we do the right things, this test and future versions of SalivaDirect will be things that really unlock and prevent this from getting worse, particularly in the fall.”
Sikka worked with NBA Senior Vice President David Weiss to arrange a partnership between the league, the players association and Yale. Teams used the SalivaDirect test and researchers compared those results with the more common but more cumbersome and expensive nasal swab, and the saliva test “yields similar outcomes,” according to Yale’s website.
The league looked at its resources and saw an opportunity to help Yale researchers develop a test they could use for the public at large. Its emergence also comes at a time when testing accuracy is front brain — as evidenced this week by the 77 false positives that impacted several NFL teams, including the Vikings.
“We did it to help the world,” Sikka said. “There’s nothing we get out of this other than we want to make a difference. … As I put it to someone else, somebody said this test is slightly better, slightly faster, slightly cheaper, slightly a better more accurate test. When you add ‘slightly’ to everything, you know what that turns to in sports? It turns into a starter. It turns into a key rotation player.”
Fewer supplies, cheaper
Weiss said the test doesn’t use all the supplies needed for other tests, such as an RNA extraction, which is required in the nasal swab, and therefore can be cheaper to produce. This test is also cheaper than other saliva tests, and could cost around $15 to $20 per sample. Swabs can run in the neighborhood of $100 per test. The main challenge now is setting up labs to process the test, Weiss said.
“It’s still a lab-based test but the benefits are that it’s a cheaper lab-based test,” Weiss said. “It’s more affordable for people and importantly it doesn’t use some of the supplies, so supply constraints [are eased] throughout all of this. So, it’ll take some work for labs to get up and running on it, but when they do it could be to a significant expansion of testing capacity.”
Grubaugh said he was puzzled at first when he saw Sikka’s e-mail.
“We had a lot of strange requests, but this one was at the top,” Grubaugh told ESPN. “I saw Timberwolves in the subject line and said, ‘What the heck?’ ”
Sikka said he and some of the researchers connected over their love of hoops, among them Anne Wyllie, whose first jersey purchase was a Kevin Garnett model.
“We really bonded over watching some of the bubble games. We call it work now and since they’re doing a test for the NBA, we can justify it,” Sikka said with a laugh.
The league was able to assist Yale in providing venues and money to test the test. ESPN reported the league and players’ union contributed $500,000 to the research. The Wolves used the test on their players, staff and family members. So did many other teams before the NBA set up the bubble.
The test requires a person to work up enough saliva, a process Sikka said can take getting used to when you do it regularly, and requires someone to watch you spit into the tube.
But it takes only a little bit of work to analyze in a lab, and that work can be done more quickly than with the swabs.
Both the league and researchers saw a chance to provide low-cost testing to people that need it the most. Sikka said they hope this test will help control the spread of COVID in places where its needed most, such as Black or Native American communities, and also to help businesses and schools. Weiss said the league was also speaking with large foundations about who might need the test most.
“We wanted to find some things that we could help with …” Weiss said. “We felt like that was maybe a responsibility that we had to spend some time thinking about whether there was any [opportunity] like that. This was one of those ideas.”
Sikka, who previously worked at Mayo Clinic and completed an anesthesiology residency at the U, wears many hats in his job with the Wolves. He analyzes player health and nutrition and has been heading the Wolves’ coronavirus response since the pandemic began in addition to his responsibilities with the league.
He deflected credit for the project’s success so far, but Weiss was eager to heap praise on Sikka for his role in helping this test get to the point it’s at today.
“He’s modest, which is I suppose probably a Midwestern trait,” Weiss said. “But he should get a lot of credit. He helped bring this group together and he’s been diligent and hardworking on the project. It’s not an exaggeration to say we wouldn’t be here without his work.”