How spit could save the college football season
The roller coaster year of 2020 brought another unexpected twist this weekend when the FDA extended an emergency use authorization to a COVID-19 test called SalivaDirect, a saliva test created at Yale University using data from the NBA.
While testing, in most cases, is already readily available for those showing symptoms in the United States, the newly-approved saliva test formulated by Yale researchers with the financial backing of the NBA provides the biggest breakthrough to date for those seeking a return to action in the world of sports.
That's right, spit could save the college football season.
There are many reasons why this is arguably the most encouraging news for sports fans of the year thus far.
The first is cost. While it's easy to view Power Five college athletics at the surface level as cash cows running on endless funds, the truth is that only a handful of the country's biggest programs enjoy that privilege. With the exception of the Big Ten, almost every conference or individual program that has canceled its football season has done so at least in part due to financial necessity, even if it cited player safety as the sole reason in public relations statements.
Testing, to this point, has been the biggest expense of programs attempting a college football season this year. The NCAA's preferred tests, called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, on average cost $100 to $110 per test.
"When labs offer tests to the public, each test should only cost $10 or less," a research scientist that spearheaded the SalivaDirect project told Yale Daily News.
The second reason saliva testing could save college football this fall is the turnaround time.
Nose-swab testing is a slow process that doesn't yield same-day results in most cases. For the public, swab tests have taken anywhere from 3-10 days for results to return with athletes likely on the expediate end of the turnaround range.
SalivaDirect will almost always yield same-day results with some tests returning within hours.
Unless both teams in a single football game quarantine themselves once a pre-game test is collected, there is no way of knowing whether a player could become an asymptomatic carrier between a mid-week test collection and a Saturday afternoon kick-off considering the hot spots some university campuses are quickly becoming.
Turnaround and timing are ultimately why saliva testing could save the football season. While most Power Five universities could spend the $100 per test to meet the minimum protocol requirements of playing games, saliva testing could provide a drastically cheaper solution which will enable athletes to be tested more frequently with less discomfort and quicker results.
As of Friday, Aug. 17, NC State had administered a gross total of 1,360 tests to athletes with eight total positive results. The most recent round yielded one positive result in 765 tests.
Assuming the tests administered to that point have had an average cost of $100, the athletic department would have spent $136,000 on tests in roughly two months. If the athletic program had access to a test such as SalivaDirect with an average cost of $10, NC State could have given twice as many tests for a price tag of $27,200, a savings of over $100,000.