WADA lab to perform coronavirus testing for future combat sports events

Efficient coronavirus testing is a major key to the return of combat sports in earnest. The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL) is set to help unlock some of those doors.

SMRTL has been "cleared and certified" to begin doing coronavirus testing for sports, lab president Dr. Daniel Eichner said Monday at a California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) virtual stakeholders meeting. SMRTL is the World Anti-Doping Agency-certified lab in Salt Lake City that analyzes samples for Olympic, Major League Baseball and UFC drug testing, among others.

CSAC and the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC), the two bodies that regulate the most high-profile boxing and mixed martial arts events in the United States, currently are working with Eichner on protocols for testing at future events, officials told ESPN. Neither California nor Nevada has had a combat sports event since March because of the coronavirus global pandemic.

CSAC executive officer Andy Foster told ESPN that SMRTL is promising a turnaround time for testing 24 hours or less at "a super high degree of accuracy." NSAC executive director Bob Bennett said he and his commission are working "hand in glove" with Eichner on plans for future events. Eichner also has a Ph.D. in viral immunology.

On the virtual meeting Monday, Eichner said SMRTL has the capability of analyzing results from polymerase chain reaction testing, which features a deep nasal swab of subjects, as well as antibody testing done via a small blood droplet taken from a finger. Eichner said he is advocating for more use of the saliva diagnostic test, which was just approved last week by the Food and Drug Administration. The saliva test, which he said uses the same technology as Ancestry.com's at-home collection kit, is just as accurate as the nasal swab "it not more" and easier to administer.

Eichner said that the "majority" of SMRTL's testing will not be for sports, but for "public health officials" and front-line workers.

"We are by no means rediverting important resources away from front-line testing programs to do testing for sports," Eichner said.

Foster said he expects other sports to be involved in SMRTL's coronavirus testing program. Eichner has worked closely with MLB over the years and helped lead a coronavirus testing study involving MLB team employees last month.

Foster said it's still unclear when California will be open to running combat sports events. The combat sports program will be part of Phase 3 of Gov. Gavin Newsom's four-phase plan. This week, the state will be moving into Phase 2.

In Nevada, the home of the UFC and many major Las Vegas boxing events, Bennett said reopening plans for combat sports are still in their "infancy." The UFC has submitted a 28-page document to the state with proposed health and safety protocols for future events at the UFC's Apex, a small venue that can host fights on the promotion's Las Vegas campus.

"It's always been the Nevada State Athletic Commission's mantra to look out for the safety of the fighters," Bennett said. "In these unprecedented times with COVID-19, we will continue to follow the data and the science, look at various models and then move forward with the best plans."

All states, jurisdictions and promotions are keeping an eye on the UFC. The promotion ran an event last Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, in a closed arena and has two more coming: one Wednesday and one this Saturday.

Everyone involved in those events will be tested for the coronavirus with two forms of testing.