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COVID-19 mutations add more variables for college sports to deal with

Purdue center Zach Edey, front left, fouls Michigan forward Austin Davis, right, during the first half of their game in West Lafayette, Ind., on Jan. 22. (AP file photo)

By LARRY LAGE

AP Sports Writer

ANN ARBOR — Playing college sports during the pandemic has potentially become more problematic as more contagious variants of the coronavirus start to show up across the U.S., including one that prompted the University of Michigan to shut down its athletics department for two weeks.

It was not clear this week how many athletic departments are testing for the mutations, either. A number of schools that responded to The Associated Press said they were, but others are not as the basketball season creeps toward tournament time and dozens of schools ramp up spring football plans.

The Wolverines put all their programs on pause Jan. 23 after the variant was linked to several people within the athletic department.

“Obviously, Michigan going on pause with the variant is of concern,” Wisconsin basketball coach Greg Gard said. “That’s obviously something that everybody’s watching really closely to see what the impact of that, along with the normal strain, has as we continue to walk forward.”

Cancellations, postponements and millions in lost revenue have hit sports worldwide over the past year and the blow fell particularly hard on U.S. colleges, where some seasons were canceled outright or pushed to winter or spring in hopes the pandemic would ease. More than 100 major college football games were disrupted last fall, but that number pales in comparison to the sheer volume of schedule shuffling for college basketball.

Since the season began Nov 25, more than 700 men’s basketball games have been postponed, rearranged or simply called off, according to an AP analysis through Friday’s games, and the news was similar for women’s teams. A handful of women’s programs ended their seasons altogether after giving it a try, including Canisius earlier this week.

Still, most schools have pressed ahead, and the hope is to hold league tournaments just ahead of the NCAA’s popular March Madness tourneys that begin in mid-March.

Athletic departments have been testing their athletes for months. But less than 1% of positive specimens in the U.S. overall are being sequenced to determine whether they have worrisome mutations, which include a variant first identified in Britain that was the one discovered at Michigan. The British variant is more contagious and believed to be more deadly than the original, while one from Africa may render vaccines somewhat less effective.

Concerns about the growing number of virus mutations come as basketball tournament preparations reach their final stages.

“Most people think if the same thing happens here that happened in the U.K, we’ll see sometime between March and April that this could the dominant strain here,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious diseases and vaccinology expert at the University of California and a member of the Pac-12’s COVID-19 medical advisory committee.

The University of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services have been conducting genomic surveillance for months but sequencing was ramped up in early January as British variant data emerged.

Emily Martin, who leads Michigan’s campus testing program, said there was a brand of PCR test that shows a unique pattern for the British variant that “doesn’t work perfectly, but it can work as an initial screen.”

“We use this as a first pass while we wait for sequencing results to come back,” she said. “However, it doesn’t work for the other variants we are watching for like the one that has been circulating in Brazil.”