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Nightengale: MLB Employees to be Subjects of Country’s Largest COVID-19 Antibody Study

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The Major League Baseball logo in an on-deck circle. Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

By Bob Nightengale |

They are Major League Baseball owners in their 70s and 80s, team presidents in their 60s, general managers in their 50s, scouts in their 40s, stadium ushers in their 30s and players in their 20s.

They are the guinea pigs.

Well, to be technical, research participants.

Major League Baseball team employees have become the largest industry to participate in a nationwide study that will test about 10,000 people for coronavirus antibodies, enabling researchers to understand how widespread COVID-19 is across the United States.

“We went to them, asked if they were interested in partnering,’’ Dr. Daniel Eichner, president of the Sports Medicine Research & Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City, told USA TODAY Sports Tuesday, “and they were happy to help contribute to public health policy. It couldn’t have worked any more favorable. Everybody was motivated to assist as quickly as they could.

“I think it will be enormously useful for public health to understand how extensive the infection is around the country. We need a study like this.’’

The findings won’t necessarily accelerate baseball’s return, but it will educate government officials on a timetable when it may be safe to re-open the economy. The tests aren’t for COVID-19 but determine the presence of antibodies in a person’s body. The tests results, run by Stanford University, USC and the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory — called a seroprevalence study — will show whether people have been infected by COVID-19 in the past, but perhaps were asymptomatic. Scientists are still debating the probability of people testing positive a second time for the deadly disease.

“This will be the first time we’ll be able to see how prevalent COVID-19 has spread throughout the United States,’’ said Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford. “This will help us understand how far along we are in battling this virus.

“This is a scientific study that would normally take years to set up, and it’s going to be a matter of weeks.’’

The test is simple, four MLB employees who underwent the exam the past two days, told USA TODAY Sports. They simply have their fingers pricked for blood, and within 10 minutes, the results are known.

Those that test positive, Bhattacharya and Eichner say, will be consulted by team physicians and trainers.

“We are proud to support important scientific research to expand the understanding of the virus,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement provided to USA TODAY Sports.

MLB is the first professional league to participate in the study, the doctors say, which they hope others will follow. Once they complete their study, they will have a better idea when they can re-open the country.

“We can’t even think about reopening parts of our economy,’’  Bhattacharya said, “until we have that data. This study will help when and where it’s safe to re-open.’’

Eichner, a lifelong Dodgers’ fan, can’t wait for the season to start again, hoping his beloved team can finally win their first World Series since 1988. Eichner also works with MLB on their anti-doping testing.

Bhattacharya, a Boston Red Sox fan, can only hope a shortened season gives his team a better shot in the AL East.

And when the two doctors were asked if they ever discuss the Mookie Betts trade between the two teams, knowing that it’s possible Betts doesn’t play a game for the Dodgers before hitting free agency, there was silence.

“I’ve been wanting to say this forever,’’ Bhattacharya said, laughing. “No comment.’’

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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