Unlike other leagues, M.L.B. opted to use SMRTL, the anti-doping lab in Utah, to conduct its testing. Dr. Eichner said SMRTL followed the Rutgers lab’s model for its saliva testing.
Why SMRTL, a nonprofit, morphed from an anti-doping testing and research lab into one focusing mostly on coronavirus testing has to do with Dr. Eichner’s background: He has a P.h.D. in viral immunology from the Australian National University.
And as the coronavirus raged through the U.S. in March, he foresaw that the demand for antidoping testing would decrease as sports stopped, and the need for coronavirus testing would skyrocket.
“We had a lot of really good, smart scientists, a lot of good instruments and we didn’t want to sit idle,” he said, adding later, “I knew we could do this test.”
As Dr. Eichner explored ways to use SMRTL to add to the country’s testing capacity, M.L.B. was looking for return-to-play testing. The league paid to convert SMRTL into a coronavirus testing site, Commissioner Rob Manfred has said — and luckily for SMRTL, it had moved to a new facility in early March that is three times as large as its previous site.
To test the saliva coronavirus samples, the lab also needed to clear several federal hurdles. Dr. Eichner said SMRTL — used to dealing with anonymous athlete samples — boosted its secure network to meet federal medical privacy laws for handling patient information. While SMRTL is awaiting formal authorization from the F.D.A. on its application for an emergency-use authorization, Dr. Eichner said they were allowed to operate in the meantime.
But M.L.B.’s testing got off to an uneven start as teams began formal training again this month. At least six M.L.B. teams, including last year’s World Series participants, the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros, canceled or postponed workouts during the first week because of delays in receiving test results. Test collectors also reportedly failed to show up in some instances.
M.L.B. said “unforeseen delays” in shipping over the July 4 holiday weekend had affected only a limited number of results and that it had since addressed the testing issues.
Before the delays became public last weekend, Dr. Eichner explained that SMRTL had promised M.L.B. a 24-hour turnaround on test results from the moment they receive the saliva shipments. “We’ve got no control on collection or shipping of the sample,” he said.
In the wake of those hiccups, an M.L.B. spokesman said in a statement on Friday that a portion of its nonplayer tests were expected to be handled by the Rutgers lab, and not solely SMRTL as originally planned. The spokesman said the decision had nothing to do with SMRTL’s capacity to handle the necessary testing.
With M.L.B. testing its players and key personnel at least twice a week, Dr. Eichner said SMRTL moved from working five days a week to every day, added at least five new people and can now process 2,000-2,500 samples a day. There are split shifts: an early morning and later start to get the results out by the evening.
“All that bureaucratic stuff was the hard stuff,” he said. “The actual science was really easy for us.”