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Should the NBA use group testing for the coronavirus?

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A different testing method could provide an easier path to restarting the 2019-20 NBA season.

Toronto Raptors open the season against the New Orleans Pelicans with a 130-122 overtime win Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA became one of the first major sports leagues in the US to shut down. Due to events beyond the league’s control, it doesn’t look like the NBA will be leading the way back soon.

This weekend marks the return of a major sports league as the Bundesliga, Germany’s premier soccer league, resumes play. The German premier basketball league, the BBL, is also planning to resume play in a 10-team bubble tournament (sealed facilities) in Munich for three weeks in June. Some other basketball leagues are following suit, e.g., in Israel. The Euroleague is also discussing a similar arrangement for three weeks in July, as is the ACB, Spain’s premier league.

Naturally, this raises questions of if — and how — the NBA should resume the 2019-20 season?

This is a loaded question and can lead to a heated debate. I’m not trying to start one. Rather, I want to look at one possible avenue for a solution. According to a report the NBA will need approximately 15,000 test kits to conclude the season and the playoffs in a bubble tournament format. This (and of course, containing the pandemic) seems to be one of the bottlenecks for restarting the season, as the NBA does not want to use tests at the expense of the general public.

A bubble tournament has its merits, but a clear downside as well. Just as the league suspended operations when a player contracted the virus, they might need to do the same if someone in the bubble was infected.

However, group testing offers a possible way out.

Roughly speaking, “group testing” refers to technology that would allow a single test kit to be used for multiple people. The main advantage for such testing is that it rules out cases in a mostly healthy population. For instance, a report on the Ecole Polytechnique’s web page explains how in a population with a 2% infection rate, group testing 50 people would save about 18 test kits. Israeli scientists have come up with similar ideas, and so have groups of researchers in the US. Reportedly, this is already being implemented in Nebraska.

In sum, reducing the number of tests needed could allow the NBA to hold some sort of championship tournament. Moreover, if the NBA can join forces with researchers and use such a bubble tournament to test technology, they could help scientists fight the pandemic. That might be a win-win situation.