Utah lab at center of MLB’s plan to return to play this summer

In this 2016 photo provided by the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory, President Dr. Daniel Eichner poses for a photo in Park City, Utah. Just 0.7% of Major League Baseball employees tested positive for antibodies to COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. The University of Southern California and the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City also led the study. (Adam Finkle/Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory via AP)

An anti-doping laboratory in Utah could play a major role in the return of Major League Baseball this season.

In laying out how the league plans to protect players and personnel against COVID-19, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the league has paid to equip a lab with the ability to process thousands of tests each week. That facility is the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in South Jordan.

Founded as the hub for athlete doping testing during the 2002 Olympics, SMRTL is a World Anti-Doping Agency certified lab. Since those Winter Games, it has continued to conduct testing within Olympics sports as well as through the PGA and UFC, among other sports organizations. Manfred, while speaking Thursday during a CNN Global Town Hall, said the lab had previously handled drug and substance abuse testing for Minor League players. It also processed an antibody test for a study run by Stanford University and the University of Southern California that MLB participated in.

SMRTL may soon be at the center of a plan to test MLB players multiple times per week if the league’s proposal to play an abbreviated season is approved by the players union.

“We paid, made an investment, to convert them over to do the testing that we need in order to play,” Manfred said.

SMRTL was selected at least in part because of its guarantee of quick results.

“The lab in Utah has assured us of a 24-hour turnaround on all of our tests,” Manfred said. “So we feel comfortable by doing multiple tests a week and minimizing that turnaround time, we’re doing everything humanly possible to make sure the players are safe.”

Extensive testing is just one of a myriad of protocols the league has put in place as it eyes a return to play, albeit in empty stadiums, as early as July. Players and essential staff for the 30 teams would travel by chartered planes that will be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized between flights. High-fives, spitting and mound visits could potentially be banned, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

In addition, MLB personnel would be subject to daily temperature checks. If a player tests positive, he will be quarantined until he tests negative twice within a 24-hour period. Meanwhile, the league will use contact tracing to find others to whom the highly contagious coronavirus may have spread and will test them as well.

Players and staff will also be tested for antibodies, Manfred said, though less frequently.

COVID-19 testing supplies have notoriously been in short supply, but SMRTL may rely on a new form of testing when working with the MLB.

Dr. Daniel Eichner, SMRTL’s president and director, spoke at a California State Athletic Commission virtual stakeholders meeting Monday. During that meeting, as first reported by ESPN, Eichner said his Utah lab is capable of analyzing results from polymerase chain reaction testing, which requires a deep nasal swab using a hard-to-find tip. He advocated, however, for use of a saliva test that shares technology with the at-home collection kit used by Ancestry.com. That test received Food and Drug Administration approval just last week and Eichner said it is just as accurate, “if not more,” than the nasal swab.

Eichner also emphasized the tests for MLB players would not take away from the resources SMRTL has dedicated to diagnosing the virus in the public health sector.

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

The lab will also continue to conduct anti-doping testing. Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, said SMRTL is expected to process tests of players in the PGA’s Korn Ferry Tour when it comes to Farmington’s Oakridge Country Club on June 25-28.