Opinion: Efficient, widespread testing for coronavirus could be key to holding 2020 NFL season on time

Maybe the MVP – Most Valuable Product – for the still-hoped-to-be-full NFL season was just approved for emergency use by the FDA on Tuesday.

On the same day that NFL owners voted to expand the playoffs and several high-ranking league officials touted the company line of aiming for a complete season that begins on time after Labor Day, the Federal Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for a rapid COVID-19 test that can deliver results in two minutes. The test, developed by Los Angeles-based Bodysphere, uses antibodies in blood to test for current or past infections with, according to the company, a 91% clinical specificity rate.

Of course, in a bigger picture, this is viewed as a game-changer for a nation grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. Bodysphere contends that it can deliver millions of tests, to be administered by healthcare professionals, to the front lines in a matter of weeks.

Such a test, too, would seemingly be critical to the NFL’s efforts to reopen in preparation for the coming season.

Efficient mass testing of players, staff and others is an obvious prerequisite that must be secured along with other logistics needed to be addressed, especially when considering that medical experts have stated that a vaccine for COVID-19 might not be available for public use for 12 to 18 months. With a timeline for receiving test results to this point often taking two to seven days, a reliable test providing a rapid diagnosis would go a long way toward addressing the league’s need for global testing – and for dealing with the potential of another outbreak later in the year.

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“We need to take our guidance from the medical people, from Dr. (Allen) Sills, Dr. (Thom) Mayer, the outside consultants on infectious diseases and from the CDC,” NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash said when asked about the logistical potential for global testing during a media conference call. Sills is the NFL’s chief medical officer; Mayer is the NFL Players Association’s medical director.

“What’s the availability of testing? We don’t want to use a disproportionate share of testing resources, if it’s limited. We want to make sure we’re testing people in an appropriate way if we do it and have consistent standards. So, I think we would very much take our guidance on that from the medical health experts.”

Several tests are in various stages of development, including a portable box from Abbott Laboratories that also received emergency use authorization from the FDA this week and is said to produce results in five to 13 minutes. Again, the bigger impact of such promising tests go far beyond the universe of a contact sport with constant exchanges of body fluids, but are undoubtedly intertwined with any timelines that the league and other sporting entities are considering.

Pash and other league officials echoed what Mayer told ESPN’s Adam Schefter during a podcast, in which he noted he is “optimistic” that the NFL’s 2020 season can begin as scheduled.

Of course, no one knows for sure. Science, data and the medical community will help shape the timelines – as it did in recently closing down all NFL team facilities – while direction from federal, state and local authorities will also play a role.

“I think what the doctors are looking at are models that address the effectiveness of different kinds of interventions, in how the curve has trended down and tailed off in other countries and what they believe the result will be based on the modeling that’s being done in this country,” Pash said. “Keep in mind that we’re still in March and there are still a few months between now and when our season would begin.

“The belief and the information that we have is leading us to continue to focus on having the season start on time and in a normal way.”

As normal, of course, as a COVID-19 test would allow.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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