Sport is returning to the US, and professional leagues are creating conditions that are tailored to study COVID-19, according to researchers. They offer significant groups of people who are regularly monitored by doctors. When leagues enter a pandemic isolation zone, as the National Basketball Association at Disney World plans, the controlled environment offers even more ways to understand the virus.
Whether the sport should return is still controversial – the pandemic is on the rise and many experts are concerned that it is not possible to create a safe environment for athletes and employees – but the leagues are pushing ahead with plans to reopen. They drive medical and technical research forward. The sports bubbles also house experimental new technologies and trials with new test methods for COVID-19. You could also tell us more about how the virus spreads.
"There's a lot of interest in the sport coming back, and it could also be a plan for us to get universities, colleges, and schools back safely." It's the same concept where a lot of people are very close to each other, ”says Priya Sampathkumar, epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic, who is working on an NBA antibody study. "Give it a try – if we can't protect her, it may not be safe to open up."
Major League Baseball participated in the first nationwide coronavirus antibody study in April. At this point, there was no effort to check what percentage of the US population was infected with the coronavirus. The league has teams spread across the country. So if you test players, support staff, and their families, you'll get an overview of how widely the virus has spread.
“The study's authors found that they had a pre-built national network of medical providers – sports medicine and orthopedic surgeons – that were scattered across a really large number of markets and could help conduct these tests. It was really, really smart, ”says Zach Binney, epidemiologist at Emory University. And the data the study collected was incredibly valuable: It turned out that less than 1 percent of MLB employees had antibodies to the coronavirus. "It was the moment for me to end pretty much every argument that there are only a ridiculous number of undiagnosed cases," says Binney.
"It was the moment for me to end pretty much every argument that there are only a ridiculous number of undiagnosed cases."
Sampathkumar is conducting a similar antibody study with the NBA. The league had some high-profile positive cases as early as March and April, so researchers knew the virus had entered the league. With the players in close contact, the virus has likely spread within the group and some may not have had any symptoms. "It would be one way to assess the actual spread of the infection within a closed population," she says.
The closed NBA bubble is dedicated to basketball, but it's also a makeshift COVID-19 research laboratory. The league is helping to test a saliva-based COVID-19 test, and all players who choose to do so will help the Yale School of Public Health validate their test method.
Players in Orlando are tested almost every day using the typical method: push a swab deep into the nose. Players who register for the Yale study also give a saliva sample for each test. The team compares the two types of tests and checks whether the saliva test is as accurate as the nose and throat swab.
The most important things the NBA offered were logistical
The most important things the NBA offered were logistical, says Anne Wyllie, a Yale scientist who led the project. Bringing a group of people together for learning is usually a big challenge. "What really made this possible was that employees were already collecting samples," she says. "This really enabled us to do something that is difficult to say if we could have done it differently." If it turns out that saliva works as well as a swab and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the NBA can use it as the standard test method. The research team expects the results to be available by the end of July.
A saliva-based test would be valuable in similar environments that require regular testing, says Sampathkumar, who is not involved in this study. "It can potentially be enlarged and implemented for schools and colleges because it is relatively non-invasive."
The NBA also offers players the ability to wear an intelligent ring from Oura Health that measures things like heart rate and body temperature. Researchers working with Oura believe that it can display subtle changes that could indicate that someone is sick before they experience symptoms. University of Michigan scientists will evaluate the data from athletes wearing the ring and tag anyone who they believe the data shows may have early signs of disease.
Coronavirus test smears in Miami, Florida.
Photo by David Santiago / Miami Herald / Tribune News Service via Getty Images
The limitation: There is no published evidence that the ring can detect early signs of COVID-19. Like the saliva test, the system is an experiment. Many researchers are skeptical that it would actually provide useful information, and scientists are still testing the idea at the University of California, San Francisco, and West Virginia University. The athletes are tested on COVID-19 almost daily, so the league in no way relies on the ring to lead the basic tests. However, the data could be used to tag players for additional testing, Harpreet Rai, CEO of Oura Health, told The Verge.
Benjamin Smarr, a data scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who works with Oura on the studies, says the information is still valuable, even if it is not a proven method of disease detection. Because they are tested anyway, players can get a feel for how the data they see out of the ring matches the way they feel and how that affects their test results.
NBA athletes can also sign up for the University of California San Francisco study on the Oura Ring. You are encouraged to do so, Rai says. However, it is unclear how many players will choose to participate in the study or how many will use the ring at all. Your data is protected: The league guidelines make it clear that the teams have no access to the physiological data of the player and cannot be used for contract negotiations. However, some NBA athletes said on social media that they had concerns about the device.
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association did not respond to interview requests.
Easier detective work
The goal, of course, is the Coronavirus in Orlando (where the Women's National Basketball Association, the NBA and Major League Soccer will play) and Utah (where the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup takes place) keep the sports bladders away on the go). This is a challenge, especially when athletes travel from areas where the virus is common: players have already had positive results after arriving in the MLS isolation zone.
If the virus spreads within the isolation zones, it should be relatively easy to follow the path traveled
However, if the virus spreads within the isolation zones, it should be relatively easy to follow the path traveled. In the outside world, people have difficulty remembering where they're going and who they're interacting with, says Angela Rasmussen, a scientist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. If you have a tight schedule and live in a central location, as athletes do in these environments, this information is easily accessible. "You can determine not only the number of contacts you have, but also the type of interactions you have with these people."
This makes it easier than ever for doctors to track down anyone who may have been exposed to the virus, which is important for the safety of those in the bladder. Hypothetically, it could also help scientists to learn more about the corona virus. This could make it easier to know how long it takes for people exposed to the virus to turn out positive, for example in a test. NBA players are tested almost every day, so it is easier to determine the moment when they started the positive test.
Long-term tracking of people is one of the best ways to understand the spread of the coronavirus. However, these types of studies are resource intensive. "We saw a study of 30 people here and some people there that helped us understand a bit more about, for example, asymptomatic transmission," says Binney. "The most interesting thing is getting data points from the same person on a regular basis."
At least one league, the NBA, is said to be think about these issues. The league is putting together an expert group to rethink the research approaches for the bladder, says Sampathkumar. "They are ready to share the data they come up with and ask for input on the type of data they should collect," she says.
The information is important to the league itself as it helps manage the health and safety of its employees. But learning more about the virus and its spread is useful for everyone, not just professional athletes hiding in Disney World. "That could be really valuable information," says Rasmussen. "And that could be extrapolated to the larger population."