Soon, Mayo Clinic hopes to have a reliable antibody test that would detect if the body has developed defenses to the coronavirus with just the prick of a patient’s finger.
To further enhance the accuracy of that test, Mayo has enlisted the help of the NBA, including the Timberwolves, who have all become part of the clinic’s comprehensive antibody test study. Researchers hope to glean more information about the body’s response to a coronavirus infection and determine how widespread it has been statewide and nationwide.
It’s a significant partnership between sports and medicine with the Wolves and their association with Mayo Clinic helping to spearhead the NBA’s involvement in the study.
“Testing for antibodies is one thing, and then the second part is interpreting it and saying what does that really mean?” said Dr. Priya Sampathkumar, a consultant in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Mayo Clinic. “I think it’s going to be a few weeks before we know what the significance of the antibodies is. Does that mean people are truly protected or is there levels of antibodies that are protective?”
That’s another question Mayo Clinic is hoping to answer in its study of antibodies — what sort of immunity does the body have to re-infection?
Mayo Clinic, which has the capacity to perform around 20,000 antibody tests per day worldwide, according to a spokesperson, has collected samples from NBA players and staff using a blood draw and the finger-prick method. It is comparing the results of both tests to see if the finger prick is as reliable as the blood draw.
A finger-prick test is “a lot more convenient for everybody,” Sampathkumar said, and researchers are trying to see whether they could use that method moving forward.
Sampathkumar said the NBA has been “very generous” in allowing the league to save the samples it collects to reanalyze for further information, like gauging how much immunity the body might develop after fighting off the virus.
“We’ll be able to go back and rerun some tests on the samples, and continually get more information,” she said. “So what we have now is a snapshot in time, and they’re also willing to be retested at serial intervals.”
The NBA was the first major professional sports league in North America to announce it was suspending its season, after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus on March 11. The study can help the league garner more information about how it can safely resume its season.
What makes the NBA an ideal candidate for this study? Part of the answer has to do with the nature of the sport and its culture. NBA players spend a lot of time together. They share a lot of equipment and are in proximity to each other on the court, in locker rooms and on airplanes.
A study of NBA players might give researchers a better idea of how coronavirus spreads, especially among people who have the virus but are asymptomatic or only have mild symptoms.
Major League Baseball employees also participated in an antibody study, conducted by researchers at Stanford, University of Southern California and the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory. That study found 0.7% of subjects had been infected with coronavirus.
For the Wolves, involvement in the study hits close to home. They have a longstanding partnership with Mayo Clinic, and center Karl-Anthony Towns donated $100,000 to Mayo for research purposes before his mother, Jacqueline, died of the virus in April. Robby Sikka, the Wolves’ vice President of basketball performance and technology, helped organize the team and the league’s involvement in the study.
“As we look forward, understanding what has happened in the past is what antibody testing will tell us,” Sikka said. “There’s certainly a role for that in epidemiologic evaluation, and in opening certain parts of the country and understanding really where we are relative to herd immunity, which is not close.”
But you have to start with the data, and that’s what Mayo is getting from the NBA.
“That will be one of the many pieces of information that could potentially be used to gauge safety of things moving forward,” Sampathkumar said.
Sampathkumar said this test is looking for the presence of IgG antibodies, which tell doctors a person has been infected. It doesn’t detect what Sampathkumar called “neutralizing” antibodies, which can tell how much protection a person has from infection.
“The hope is,” she said, “eventually we can tell if there are areas where the number of people with antibodies is so high that there’s little risk of ongoing transmission vs. other parts of the country, other parts of the state where antibody levels among the population, there’s so few people with antibodies you need to continue to be very careful about social distancing, masking and preventing infections.”