Major League Baseball Players Pitch In for a Major COVID-19 Study

Major League Baseball players and team employees to participate in 10,000-person COVID-19 study

Baseballs
MLB employees, including players, executives and stadium workers, are participating voluntarily and their results will be anonymous—so this research will not expedite the return of baseball season. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Employees of Major League Baseball teams, including players, executives and stadium workers, are participating in a 10,000 person coronavirus study designed to map the spread of the virus in cities across America, reports Jeff Passan for ESPN.

The study is the most expansive coronavirus antibody research conducted in the United States so far, report Michael Errigo and Dave Sheinin for the Washington Post.

The study, run by Stanford University, the University of Southern California and the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL), will test thousands using pin prick blood tests, made by Premier Biotech, that can offer results in ten minutes.

"This is the first study of national scope where we're going to get a read on a large number of communities throughout the United States to understand how extensive the spread of the virus has been," Jay Bhattacharya, a physician at Stanford University who will analyze and publish the data, tells ESPN. "Why MLB versus other employers? I've reached out to others, but MLB moved by far the fastest. They've been enormously cooperative and flexible. We're trying to set up a scientific study that would normally take years to set up, and it's going to be a matter of weeks."

The study, in which 27 of 30 teams are expected to participate, is not expected to expedite a return to competition for the league, which shut down spring training on March 12, because the players’ identities will be separated from the data, as SMRTL president Daniel Eichner tells ESPN.

“There’s nothing in it for the teams or MLB on this one,” Eichner tells James Wagner at the New York Times. “This is purely to drive public health policy.”

Blood samples will be screened for the presence of two antibodies specific to the novel coronavirus. One is called IgM and appears relatively quickly in the blood of those who have been infected with COVID-19. The other is called IgG that lasts long after the infection happens. If either is detected, it indicates a viral infection occurred regardless of whether the person ever displayed symptoms or has since recovered. By contrast, tests that seek out the virus itself will only come back positive if the person is presently infected.

Eichner emphasizes that this study will not take away resources from healthcare workers.
"I don't want anyone getting confused that we're taking these test kits away from front-line workers because we aren't," he tells Tom Goldman at NPR. "These [antibody tests] are not used for diagnosis."

In addition to the MLB study, Stanford and USC are also conducting antibody testing in two California counties. The test kits are being mailed to study participants who live in areas with shelter-in-place orders. The results of the tests can be photographed and submitted electronically to the researchers.

Bhattacharya tells ESPN he hopes to publish a peer-reviewed paper based on the study data as early as next week, in hopes of guiding the continuation or easing of stay-at-home restrictions.

“I’d love to be able to go to Fenway Park someday again,” he tells the New York Times. “But that’s not really the main purpose. The main purpose is so that we can inform nationwide policy in every community about how far along we are in this epidemic and if it is safe enough to open up the economy.”