On Aug. 15, a new rapid-detection coronavirus test developed by scientists at Yale was approved for emergency use by the FDA. Beyond the innovations in the technology itself (which we'll get into), the test, called SalivaDirect, has another unique characteristic: it was partially funded by the NBA and NBA Players' Association.
The partnership came about early in the pandemic. "A lot of sports leagues and larger organizations were thinking, 'OK, we're shut down, so what can we do?'" said Nathan Grubaugh, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale who helped lead the development of SalivaDirect, in an interview with ESPN. "'We are going to have to be testing our population — players — all the time if we want to play again. How can we do that?'" The NBA reached out first; the front office had come across Dr. Grubaugh's prior research on the efficacy of non-COVID-19 saliva tests and offered to fund one for the novel coronavirus. Dr. Grubaugh and his colleagues took the league up on it.
In June, before the NBA's restart, Yale tested SalivaDirect on a group that included NBA players and staff, then compared the results to nasal swab tests given to the same group. According to research that hasn't yet been peer-reviewed, the results showed "high agreement in testing outcomes."
The key difference compared with other saliva tests is that SalivaDirect forgoes an RNA extraction step, a change that does result in the loss of "a little bit of sensitivity," Dr. Grubaugh told ESPN. What it gains in the trade-off is speed and cost effectiveness; SalivaDirect could cost $15 to $20, or as low as $4, compared to $150 maximum for the current leading COVID-19 saliva test, according to ESPN. The turnaround time for results should be faster as well, Dr. Grubaug said, because the test uses equipment and compounds found in most labs. If a viable lab is nearby, results could be available in a matter of hours, and no more than a day at most, he told ESPN.
In a statement on the test's approval for emergency public use, FDA commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, MD, said that SalivaDirect's flexibility is "groundbreaking in terms of efficiency and avoiding shortages of crucial test components." The NBA and NBPA contributed more than $500,000 to fund the test's development, according to ESPN's sources, but neither group plans to take royalties from it.
"My goal is not to test athletes," Dr. Grubaugh told ESPN. "That's not my target population. My target population is everybody. There were concerns about partnering with the NBA when all these other people need testing. But the simple answer ended up being the NBA was going to do all this testing anyway, so why not partner with them and try to create something for everyone?"