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COVID-19 saliva tests might hold the key to saving the IU basketball and football seasons

You have to wonder what difference a few days might have made.

Not long after the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed their 2020 seasons, Yale University unveiled a COVID-19 testing breakthrough.

A saliva test, known as SalivaDirect, developed via a partnership with the NBA, earned emergency FDA approval Aug. 15, just four days after the two leagues decided to push their fall athletics to the winter or spring.

Another so-called rapid saliva test from the University of Illinois gained emergency use authorization Aug. 19.

While there is still much work to be done, the saliva-based tests could make the difference when it comes to moving forward at some point with the 2020-21 academic year seasons.

The saliva tests are inexpensive, less invasive and require very few supplies and processing.

“With saliva being quick and easy to collect, we realized it could be a game-changer in COVID-19 diagnostics,” Yale associate research scientist Anne Wyllie said in a statement. “With testing urgently needed, the Yale team was determined to decrease both testing times and costs, to make testing widely accessible.”

Saliva test results can be produced in hours rather than days.  When it comes to having comfort that two entirely healthy teams are walking onto a field or court, that kind of expediency might be just what the doctor ordered.

As it stands, the current testing capabilities can take days to produce results, and that delay causes uncertainty as to the true health of teams on game day.

The saliva tests won’t save the fall Big Ten football season.  Commissioner Kevin Warren stated this week that the decision to postpone to the winter or spring won’t be revisited.

In an open letter issued last week, Warren cited multiple concerns about the current testing capabilities for COVID-19.

“Accurate and widely available rapid testing may help mitigate those concerns, but access to accurate tests is currently limited,” Warren said.  “Significant concerns also exist regarding the testing supply chain, generally, for many of our institutions.”

IU head coach Tom Allen also sees better testing as one of the variables that needs to improve to allow for the season to be played in early 2021.

“What standards are we able to meet now that we have not met in the past that kept us from playing?” Allen said when quizzed on when it would be safe to return to play. “From a health and safety perspective, we have to make sure that we have all of those things answered from a testing perspective, contact tracing and all of the different issues that were brought up to cause us to be delayed.”

The ACC is moving forward with its season this fall, and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney told reporters this week that the saliva-test might play a big role in keeping the league on track.

“I think it is awesome. It is cheaper, which is great for everybody, but it is quicker,” the Tigers’ head coach said when asked about it on Tuesday. “I think it is a quicker turnaround. That is huge. That is really, really big. I know some of these schools are maybe in a bind and can’t afford the type of testing that we can here in this league.

“So, hopefully, that will be very beneficial to everyone out there and maybe help us to continue to have a season.”

College basketball still has plenty of runway before the scheduled start of its 2020-21 campaign in early November.

Most believe that the earliest the season might truly start would be the week of Thanksgiving.

IU head coach Archie Miller believes the roll-out of the saliva tests lines up well with the start of the hoops season.

“The breakthrough with the saliva test is big, Miller said on a podcast with Aaron Torres.

“Relatively bringing safe teams to the floor and being able to complete a game with two teams that are healthy at that time — that changes the game.

“Hopefully now that the saliva test is coming on gameday you know everybody that is healthy and everybody that is supposed to be there is in there.”

While the saliva-tests are a new innovation in the fight against spreading COVID-19, their existence might allow Big Ten basketball to revisit something the league hasn’t seen in a while.

One option under consideration is a true round robin, where every team in the Big Ten would play twice.

“Realistically, if you look at it, maybe its 26 round robin Big Ten games starting in December,” Miller said. “Maybe its 20 conference games starting in January.

“What a grinder it would be.  Thats a true indicator of a true season and true champion.”

If a team is able to claim the league crown in 2021, saliva tests just might be the true champion.

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