It started with a simple email.
When the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 was raging across America last April, NBA officials were frantically searching for an easy and affordable way to test players, get timely results and save the 2020 basketball season.
About the same time, Anne Wyllie, an associate research scientist in Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases) at the Yale School of Public Health, published preliminary research showing that for the diagnosis of COVID-19, saliva was as sensitive and reliable as the intrusive nasopharyngeal swabs that were being widely used and were considered the testing gold standard.
Robby Sikka, vice president of basketball performance and technology for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, spotted Wyllie’s paper and, eager to know more, emailed her and her colleague Assistant Professor Nathan Grubaugh, who had come together to help lead the testing of samples for Yale’s IMPACT biorepository.
The contact was fortuitous.
Wyllie and Grubaugh were already developing a more efficient and importantly, cost-effective saliva-based test, which they would later call SalivaDirect™. What they lacked was a pool of research participants to assess the new protocol’s efficacy for testing asymptomatic individuals. And now, the NBA was knocking on their door.
After a flury of emails and Zoom meetings, Wyllie, Grubaugh, and the NBA, with important buy-in from the NBA Players’ Association, launched a study called SWISH (Surveillance With Improved Screening and Health) to further evaluate the efficacy of the SalivaDirect™ protocol. Up to 500 NBA players and staff were enrolled in the study to see if SalivaDirect™ could serve as a reliable surveillance measure for COVID-19.
If you didn’t do it in that moment, it was a complete failure of opportunity…If you don’t do the research to show a value to society, what else are we doing sports for? Robby Sikka, vice president of basketball performance and technology for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves
Both parties recognized the potential societal benefits of the collaboration, which was a priority for the partnership. If successful, SalivaDirect™ would expand testing options for schools, businesses and the general public and provide a much-needed new tool for helping to reduce COVID-19 outbreaks.
“In talking to our partners at the NBA, we heard that in addition to finding less-invasive testing solutions for players and staff, there is a strong desire on their part to give back to the public and especially help low-income communities, so it became immediately clear that our interests were aligned,” Grubaugh said when the partnership was announced.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in August, Sikka explained his position, “If you didn’t do it in that moment, it was a complete failure of opportunity…If you don’t do the research to show a value to society, what else are we doing sports for?”
The FDA granted an emergency use authorization for SalivaDirect™ in August and by September, three labs had been designated under Yale’s authorization to perform the testing for people in Florida, New York and Minnesota. More labs are expected to go online in the coming weeks.
The innovative partnership between YSPH, the NBA and the NBA Players Association was highlighted in full-page advertisement in the NBA Championship official program.
“After discovering saliva is a promising sample type for SARS-CoV-2 detection, we have made it our mission to develop a testing method that is accurate, affordable, and accessible to all,” said Wyllie. “Our hope is that eventually every person that needs a COVID-19 test will be able to get one. Our laboratory partners are instrumental in ensuring schools and other essential institutions can remain open and healthy.”