When the Pac-12 announced its partnership with Quidel Corp. for point-of-care tests on Sept. 3 — the Thursday before Labor Day — commissioner Larry Scott described the deal as a “game changer” for the conference.
Considering the sweeping consequences of not playing football this year, that was an understatement.
The access to rapid-result Covid-19 antigen tests that could be administered before practice and games solved the first of two daunting challenges (keeping the players safe) and provided vital momentum to eventually clearing the second (convincing officials in California and Oregon to ease health restrictions).
That evening, I mentioned the deal to my wife.
“That’s great,” she said, “but why is the Pac-12 getting those tests? Why aren’t they going to teachers and other essential workers?”
“You’re right,” I responded. “I’ve been wondering the same thing. I need to ask Quidel.”
On Monday, I did just that.
During a 30-minute conversation, Quidel CEO Doug Bryant told the Hotline that he “worried a lot about the perception” that his company’s rapid-result antigen tests, which have the potential to change the battle lines with coronavirus, were being deployed to 12 college athletic departments.
“I’ve said all along that our company would do the right thing,’’ he told me.
The deal with the Pac-12, he added, will help Quidel do exactly that.
“How so?” I asked.
“It was bit of a perfect storm,’’ he said. “Larry and the universities needed our tests, and we needed their data.”
The partnership, akin to longtime acquaintances having one date and deciding to elope, is more mutually beneficial than you might imagine.
This is their story …
Arizona was the first Pac-12 school to court Quidel — but not the Arizona athletic department.
As the Hotline explained last week, the school’s Biorepository, an arm of the health sciences department, was aware of Quidel’s Sofia 2 SARS antigen tests in the spring and secured a contract.
The Biorepository would eventually conduct 25,000 tests (and counting) on students, staff and samples collected from the university hospital, according to professor David Harris, who runs the program.
That deal helped place Quidel’s product on the Pac-12’s radar, and the conference’s medical advisory team, led by doctors Doug Aukerman (Oregon State) and Kim Harmon (Washington), made contact with Quidel officials about an eventual partnership.
Meanwhile, Quidel, which received emergency-use authorization from the FDA in early May, was producing about one million antigen tests per week.
They were being shipped to first responders and nursing homes (through a program with the Department of Health and Human Services), according to Bryant.
But to help refine the algorithms running the Sofia 2 tests, Quidel needed to expand its data collection.
“The next step,’’ Bryant said, “was naturally, ‘What about kids?’”
Quidel created a pilot program to provide weekly tests to a private school — for competitive reasons, the company declined to provide specifics — and it has partnered with a handful of universities across the country.
Before expanding its client base, however, it had to solve a problem.
“We were having issues with our supply chain,” Bryant said.
“Even though the plant could do 1.5 million (tests) per week, we didn’t have the materials, like the reagents and swabs, that we needed …
“Had the Pac-12 talked to us in June, I would have said, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’’’
Eventually, the supply chain issues were resolved, and Quidel increased capacity to 1.5 million tests per week.
Lately, it has ramped to 1.9 million.
In October, the company is moving non-SARS products off its production lines in order to add 200,000 antigen tests per week.
(More lines are being built, with the goal of five million tests per week by the spring.)
With the supply chain re-stocked, the pilot program underway and more data needed on asymptomatic cases, Quidel made itself available to suitors.
Bryant was uncertain about the connection that brought Quidel face-to-face with the Pac-12, but he mentioned the months-long partnership with Arizona health sciences, the discussions with Pac-12 medical personnel and a third contact point: Jeff Hunt, a Texas-based crisis management and brand strategy expert.
Hunt’s firm, Legend Labs, does public relations work for Quidel, according to Bryant. He is also longtime friends with Scott and has provided PR advice for the conference for a decade.
“Jeff may have facilitated the discussions,’’ Bryant said.
“I don’t know how it got going,’’ he added. “My COO said, ‘Hey, I’m having dinner with Larry Scott. Do you want to be there?’”
On Saturday, Aug. 29, according to a Pac-12 spokesperson, Scott was connected with Quidel.
The next day, Pac-12 medical advisors held a conference call with Quidel executives.
On Monday, Scott flew to San Diego to meet Bryant, tour the production facility and lay the framework for a deal.
By Thursday — the day of a previously scheduled meeting of Pac-12 presidents and chancellors, who had to approve the deal — Scott made it official.
Many athletic departments were unaware of the deal until just prior to the public announcement that afternoon.
However it got consummated, the partnership changed everything for the Pac-12.
And it did so two months earlier than expected.
The Pac-12’s decision in early August to shut down all competition for the rest of 2020 was based, in large part, on the expectation that it would not have access to Quidel’s tests until November.
Without point-of-care testing, it would be difficult to control spread, keep asymptomatic players off the field and meet the contact-tracing demands.
The surprising pre-Labor Day deal suddenly made a fall season possible, with the Pac-12 expected to vote on a restart Thursday.
“Certainly, the opportunity to test daily helps mitigate several of those concerns,’’ Aukerman, the Oregon State doctor, explained the day the partnership was announced.
“But at that point in time, we didn’t have the opportunity or ability to do point-of-care daily testing and didn’t see that on the horizon, in talking to numerous vendors. This is clearly a new development.”
Quidel’s 15-minute tests can be administered before practice and games. Computer modeling shows daily antigen tests are even more effective than the PCR tests used by the NFL in reducing infectiousness.
Pac-12 will receive 15,000 tests per week for its athletes in contact sports — or 0.75 percent of the total number of tests rolling off the Quidel production lines each week. (The deal is through Dec. 31, but the Pac-12 has the right to extend.)
At $22 per test — the price paid by Arizona’s Biorepository — that’s $330,000 per week for the conference at large and $27,500 per school.
Considering the tens of millions of dollars riding on the football season, it’s the best money the conference ever spent.
But it’s worthwhile for Quidel, too.
In order to provide the most effective antigen test for all age groups, Bryant explained, Quidel needs data points. Hundreds of thousands of data points.
All the shipments to nursing homes and first responders have enable the company to refine the tests for adults and symptomatic cases.
But it needs more data … cardiac data … serological data … on children and young adults. Specifically, Bryant said, it needs data on asymptomatic young adults.
For instance: 20-year-old college athletes who feel just fine.
The test kits bound for Pac-12 athletic departments at the end of the month have been set to clinical mode, allowing results to be transmitted (without player ID) straight to the cloud, where Quidel’s scientists can track data in real time.
The data will help Quidel set the algorithms for antigen tests distributed to the population at large.
As you might imagine, the research component to the partnership was well received by Pac-12 presidents and chancellors.
It’s the first daily testing study of young adults Quidel has undertaken. The company has plans to supply other college athletic departments with tests this season.
“For a greater understanding of performance,” Bryant said, “we have to figure out the right algorithms.
“We wanted a generation of asymptomatic data to give the public confidence that it worked.”