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Promising results from initial use of the Covid-19 antigens tests central to Pac-12 football’s return

By the end of the month, tens of thousands of rapid-response antigen tests will be delivered to athletic departments across the Pac-12.

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Manufactured by Quidel, the product requires a machine the size of a toaster, generate results in 15 minutes and are the key to the return of football this fall.

But one school began using the tests months ago.

Arizona has run 25,000 Quidel tests on students, athletes, staff members and ICU patients since the spring.  Professor David Harris, who oversees the program, told the Hotline the results have been impressive.

“It only seems to get better the more you do it,” he said.

Harris is the executive director of Arizona’s Biorepository, which provides clinical specimens to research centers in Tucson and elsewhere.

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He’s also a professor in the Arizona Department of Medicine and has a doctorate in microbiology and immunology.

His life is spent with organisms that cannot be seen by the naked eye.

But the importance of the Quidel antigen test for public health, he explained, is obvious.

“It provides feedback on a large group of people rapidly.”

Like so many other researchers across the country, Harris and his team at Arizona’s BioBank spent the early days of the coronavirus pandemic running PCR tests on coronavirus samples.

PCR tests (polymerase chain reaction) use a reagent to amplify and locate viral DNA and RNA. Harris called the process “the gold standard” of viral testing — it has been used for decades to detect not only influenza but ebola.

But it also takes time, up to 48 hours.

“We figured there had to be a better way,” he said.

Through contacts in the industry — Harris has founded five companies during his decades in Tucson — he came across Quidel, the San Diego-based producer of diagnostic healthcare products.

Quidel’s Sofia SARS test, which looks for the markers (antigens) that trigger an immune response, requires just 15 minutes to complete.

So Harris ordered the machine and 300 tests. Instead of using the samples provided by Quidel, he went the real-world route.

Harris and his team collected samples from Arizona students and patients in the intensive care unit at the University of Arizona hospital.

Then he ran antigen and PCR tests side by side on the samples to compare results.

They agreed 96 percent of the time, he said.

At that point, Harris expanded his research and ran 10,000 tests, including samples taken from Arizona athletes.

“We wanted to feel confident that if we abandoned the PCR tests, we wouldn’t miss anything,’’ he said.

The Quidel product held up.

They were 96 percent to 98 percent accurate in sensitivity (finding the antigens) and 100 percent accurate in specificity (finding the right antigens).

On both counts, Harris said, the numbers matched the results from PCR tests.

“We decided we didn’t need anything else,’’ he said. “This was the test to use to get rapid feedback.”

Then he sounded a cautionary note.

“Nothing is ever 100 percent,’’ he said.

“I find it interesting that we’re concerned about athletes spreading it to each other, but six months ago we weren’t concerned about some of the more deadly viruses being brought to the field, like meningitis.”

Dr. Kimberly Harmon, the head physician for the Washington football program and chair of the Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Board, believes the antigen tests will meet the standard for Covid-19 prevention set by the conference’s medical team.

The next step for the Pac-12 is to convince health officials in Oregon and California to lift the restrictions currently preventing the six teams under their jurisdiction from conducting full-contact practices.

At that point, the university presidents would vote on a return to play later this fall.

“From a theoretical perspective, it’s a very high bar, and you could argue that what we’re doing is a higher bar” than the NFL, Harmon told the Hotline.

“The near-daily testing should keep the athletes safe.”

To date, Harris and his team have run 25,000 antigen tests using the Quidel product.

The machine isn’t only compact, it can run on a battery that lasts several hours. Yes, it’s portable.

“You could take it to the arena and screen players before a game.”

The cost, he said, is $21 to $23 per test, which is cheaper than a PCR test ($30).

For a Pac-12 athletic department ordering 150 antigen tests for the football program — to be administered daily for 15 weeks this fall (including training camp) — that’s approximately $350,000.

It will be the best money the conference has ever spent.

“But it’s important to remember it doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility to wear a mask and wash your hands,” Harris added.

“If you get done playing and then go to some rooftop party, it’s all for naught.”

*** Send suggestions, comments and tips (confidentiality guaranteed) to [email protected] or call 408-920-5716

*** Follow me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline

*** Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

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