Doctor explains how coronavirus researchers teamed up with MLB for 10,000-person antibody study

Major League Baseball will have about 10,000 employees partake in a vast and unique study on the viability of COVID-19 antibody testing, multiple league sources confirmed to CBS Sports. The study, which will not affect any timeline for a potential start of the 2020 MLB regular season, will include participants from 27 of the league’s 30 teams and help determine whether test subjects have been infected with COVID-19 even if they never presented symptoms. 

The tests, which were distributed at each participating team’s ballpark, were available on a voluntary basis. The team’s medical personnel had to know an individual was coming, and those who participated had to fill out a questionnaire, according to those familiar with the process.

The goal of the study is to determine the extent of the coronavirus pandemic in large metropolitan areas. It’s a joint effort on the part of Stanford University, the University of Southern California, and the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory. 

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, of Stanford, discussed the tests with CBS Sports on Tuesday evening. He explained that the test results are typically available within 15 minutes after a blood sample is given through a pin prick. This test, which is similar in appearance to a pregnancy test, differs from the standard coronavirus test, as it doesn’t indicate whether the virus is active — just the presence of antibodies formed against COVID-19. 

The antibody test, should it prove successful and viable, could be administered at home and yield results in a matter of minutes, unlike the current COVID-19 test that must be performed by healthcare professionals. The data from the study should help policymakers decide when it will be prudent to lift the various stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders that are in effect across the vast majority of the U.S. It will do that, at least theoretically, by allowing for more accurate estimates on how prevalent the coronavirus is over and above the limited tests that have been performed thus far.  

“You need to know how many people have been infected up to now,” said Dr. Bhattacharya. “The only way to get that is through the antibody testing. That’s why this is so important, this will help us forecast where the outbreak is headed and how we can head toward opening the economy back up. Without this, you’re in the dark.”

Dr. Bhattacharya was careful to note that this isn’t an example of MLB leveraging its wealth and power to cut in line. Rather, he was connected to MLB through a third party. The 10,000 participants will include some players, but also front office personnel, concession stand workers and more. 

“I just want to emphasize, I don’t think MLB is doing this for their self-interest,” said Dr. Bhattacharya. “They offered it up to everybody, and I made that clear. This is not just for athletes, the wealthy, or the one percent. They wanted to use this opportunity to contribute to public health. The city officials and the public health officials are the ones making the decisions. That’s as best as I can tell as the main motivation behind this.”

MLB is of course just one of many sports presently on hold because of the global pandemic. Dr. Bhattacharya said the pool of MLB employees will work well because it gives researchers an idea of COVID-19’s prevalence throughout different metropolitan areas.

“I think this kind of testing, the MLB study that we’re doing, is the start and not the end point. I would like this kind of testing to be done everywhere,” said Dr. Bhattacharya. “Every community needs to know what the right next steps need to take from a local approach, and to open the economy, this is the right step.”

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