The NBA Bubble: Dr. Priya Sampathkumar Helped Make It Happen

Dr. Priya Sampathkumar has been busy fighting a global pandemic. Sampathkumar is a consultant in the division of infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. There, she was leading a research team working with the NBA to determine how many players and staff members have antibodies to COVID-19, which could potentially provide immunity to reinfection. The results of her research helped jumpstart the league’s reopening while also aiding the global battle against COVID-19.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the pandemic, in relation to when it first started spreading? Is there any new data that suggests, or do you see any signs of, a vaccine being produced sooner rather than later?

The pandemic shows no signs of abating. Cases continue to rise in most parts of the world. The only silver lining is that the infection fatality rate (the proportion of infected individuals who die) is now lower than in the early days of the pandemic. This is despite the fact that no real effective therapies for the disease have been developed so far. The possible explanations for the lower death rate include: 

1)      Better understanding of the disease process by health care professionals resulting in better medical care including treatments like positioning patients, giving them blood thinners to prevent clots, recognition of patients who are at high risk of deterioration

2)      Cases are more widely distributed and therefore healthcare systems in any given area are not overwhelmed with huge numbers of cases, leaving them in better shape to care for hospitalized patients. This however may be changing in some parts of the world, where cases are rising rapidly

3)      Widespread use of masks may be decreasing the load of virus that people are exposed to, making the resultant illness milder and less likely to result in death

Several vaccines are in Phase 3 trials which is the final step before a vaccine is licensed for use. One vaccine trial (Moderna) just completed enrollment and data from this trial is expected to be available by mid-November. If this vaccine is found to be safe and effective, then we should have a few million doses of the vaccine available by the end of the year. Backed by government funding, vaccine companies have been manufacturing vaccine doses even prior to approval, which means there will not be a wait between approval and distribution of vaccine. That’s the good news.

The two leading vaccine contenders however do require 2 doses of the vaccine given 4 weeks apart, so it will take at least 6 weeks for a person who gets the vaccine to develop protection from the vaccine. And it will takes months to get 60-70% of the world’s population vaccinated which is what it will take to really take to end the pandemic through herd immunity. So masking and physical distancing are here with us through at least summer of 2021. Masks are the equivalent of vaccines at the present time – we need to get everyone to use them and use them consistently.

The Mayo Clinic developed a finger stick test which allows testing to occur both quicker, and in a less invasive manner – what were the results for this method like in terms of accuracy?

The test was shown to be as effective in screening for COVID antibodies as a test done on blood drawn from a vein. The test can be easily done at home. A small drop of blood obtained by finger stick is placed on a card that can then be mailed in to a laboratory. This eliminates the need to go in to a medical facility for testing, and makes the test less expensive and more accessible. Some positive tests will still need a second confirmatory test but this eliminated the medical visit in the majority of patients.

The NBA bubble was a huge success and you and your team had a lot to do with this from research to testing. How did you get involved with bringing the NBA season back? Was it partly due to the fact that the Mayo Clinic has sponsorship ties with the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx and the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves?

Yes, that was part of the reason. I was also serving as a pandemic advisor to the Minnesota Timeberwolves early on, and the research collaboration arose from that. The NBA has been very forward thinking and has partnered with medical researchers around the nation to not only get the best testing and advice for their players but also advance science and bring back all sports safely.

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