The NBA, NBPA, and Yale University join forces to fight COVID-19

By: Joel Alderman


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today (Aug. 15th) issued an emergency authorization that allows the public to use the Saliva Direct coronavirus test method developed by the Yale University School of Public Health and funded jointly by the NBA and NBA Players Association. This could be a major development in combating the COVID-19 epidemic.  The technique is the same that has been employed in the NBA bubble in Florida.


The only thing that makes this a sports story rather than just a medical one is that it involves the National Basketball Association and its players. But in this time of a still not under control pandemic, that is enough to compel us to write about a study of a new and faster technique to detect if a person has the novel coronavirus.

The league and its Players Association have entered into a partnership with Yale University to determine if a saliva-based method, developed by a group led by a professor and a scientist at Yale, will prove effective. It has the name of SalivaDirect.

Nathan Grubaugh and Anne Wyllie

Nathan Grubaugh and Anne Wyllie are two people few outside of New Haven, Connecticut, have heard of, especially sports fans. But if the results of the study are favorable, their names could become close to widely-circulated words.

Grubaugh is an assistant professor and Wyllie an associate research scientist at the school. They will soon begin testing players, coaches, and staff from NBA teams who have volunteered to be part of the study.

The results of the investigation are expected by mid-July.

How the test is now performed

Currently, the NP swabbing method is the most widely used to detect COVID-19 and other respiratory pathogens. NP is short for nasopharyngeal but we’ll go with NP so as not to make this more technical than it already is.

As hard as it is to pronounce the word, being tested that way is also a challenge, especially for the person undergoing it. The procedure is an invasive one that requires inserting a swab deep into a nostril to the back of the throat. The swab is then rotated to collect secretions, held in place for several seconds, and then removed. What is collected on the swab is then analyzed in a lab.

The first trial for SalivaDirect

This spring Yale personnel developed SalivaDirect to use in place of the NP swabbing method or as an alternative. If it proves accurate it will have several advantages over what is done now. This newer test is non-invasive and requires only a small saliva sample, cutting down testing times by over an hour. In addition, it is less costly, requires minimal training, and exposes health care workers to less or no risk, according to Professor Grubaugh.

The goal is to have SalivaDirect approved by the FDA and ready for use by the general public by the end of July.

The NBA and the NBPA agree on this one

Dr. John DiFiori, NBA director of sports medicine, said the league is “hopeful that our contributions to this work will help to advance the research in the interest of broadly accessible and minimally invasive testing.”

The chief medical officer for the players’ association (NBPA), Joe Rogowski. pointed out that the study offers the potential for “players to have an alternative method of testing within the NBA campus in Orlando” and “make a larger contribution to public health in the fight against this virus.”

A preliminary study provides optimism

This new approach has already been studied by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health who compared it with the method now being followed. They tested saliva and NP samples from 44 inpatients and 98 health care workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital shortly after the virus arrived in Connecticut. They found that saliva samples taken from just inside the mouth provided greater detection sensitivity and consistency throughout the course of infection than the widely followed NP method.

Will saliva be the better and faster way to diagnose whether one is in the early stages of the coronavirus. Or will it just be another technique?

Either way the NBA, its players, and Yale are looking to play a winning game.

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