Could dried blood spot testing revolutionise drug testing in sport?

Are the cheat's days numbered? Tim Heming reports on how the current Covid-19 pandemic is sparking an accelerated rollout of a potentially revolutionary drugs testing procedure…

new method for drug testing in sport

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the Covid-19 pandemic has made sport scramble to innovate. But where a boom in online cycle races, tennis tussles and pole vaulting in back gardens might be lockdown placeholders, one area with potential to make a bound forwards is the fight against doping.

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Given the current environment, a new protocol for testing that’s simplified, less expensive or invasive, more difficult to subvert and produces samples that are more stable and more easily stored sounds fancifully ideological and somewhat counterintuitive. But it might just be in the offing.

The existing whereabouts system, where athletes provide an hour a day for drug testers to drop by unannounced, seems not just inherently flawed, but borderline absurd under social-distancing guidelines and caps on unnecessary travel. It looks more like an invitation for cheaters to do so with impunity. How could a more robust system be possible at a time when infractions are harder to police than ever before? 

The answer could lie in dried blood spot testing (DBS), championed by one of athletics’ legendary characters, Ed Moses, the 400m hurdler who was unbeaten in races for almost a decade and on retirement became a driving force behind the introduction of out-of-competition testing.

Now sitting on the board of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, he enthusiastically explains the straightforward process of mailing athletes a device that’s placed on the shoulder with microblades slicing into the capillaries (it doesn’t hurt!) to take a few drops of blood. It’s then sealed in a pre-addressed and tamper-proof package. Live video streamed in front of testers, it takes about five minutes. The attraction is obvious, the excuses for avoidance less so, and national agencies such as USADA and Germany’s NADA are now trialling it with volunteer athletes. IM world champ Sebastian Kienle has confirmed he’ll be taking part.

Doctor Olivier Rabin, the science director of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), explained to me how not only is the process cheaper for collection than blood and urine, but the minute sample size required means it doesn’t face the same storage/transportation challenges.

Dr Rabin does temper Moses’ enthusiasm though, insisting DBS should only be seen as complementary to existing methods and won’t yet detect erythropoietin (EPO), for example, where larger sample volumes are required. There’s also expected reticence over the legalities: if an athlete refuses to partake, or claims WiFi dropped out, will it stand up in court? But Rabin’s calculated insistence on more analysis and harmonisation shouldn’t be seen as entirely discouraging. 

WADA has earmarked the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022 for the implementation of DBS, but is not ruling out a bit-part role in next year’s ‘Tokyo 2020’ either. It’s not quite the “happening in a heartbeat” as Moses might hope, but he’s not one to see any hurdle as insurmountable.

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Illustration by Daniel Seex