Leicester academic urges caution for international sports

A Leicester academic has urged further caution for international sports events taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Julian Tang, Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Leicester and Clinical Virologist, has advised that while domestic sporting competitions could continue with appropriate measures in place, international fixtures and tournaments pose a much greater risk of importing or exporting new variant viruses from overseas that may have unpredictable consequences.

Dr Tang spoke amid reports of international tennis stars being locked down in their Melbourne hotel ahead of the Australian Open, while rugby union prepares for its annual Six Nations tournament across Europe. He said:

“Although pre-travel testing is possible – though not fool proof – before leaving their home country, once athletes arrive at their destination they may be at high risk of contracting a local ‘foreign’ strain of the virus and bringing it back home.

“Travel to destinations with high infection rates like the USA, UK, France and some other European countries may be quite risky compared to travel to other countries like Australia and New Zealand, where the levels of circulating virus in the community are much lower.

“Unless players are careful with whom they mix with ‘off-court’ they may acquire the infection from the local population, which may not manifest until five to seven days later (the typical COVID-19 incubation period), or even not at all if the infection is asymptomatic.

“For longer events, like the two-week tennis Grand Slams, there is also more risk of acquiring a new infection locally, depending on the nature and frequency of these local contacts while ‘off-court’.”

And, while the greater risk of contracting the virus over a longer time period is weighed against diminished contact in a sport such as tennis, athletes and their close contacts must be careful outside of their training and playing schedule, too.

Dr Tang continued:

“This contrasts, ironically, with the relatively safe nature of tennis from an infection control viewpoint, as the sport is naturally socially-distanced in singles – each player being on opposite sides of the court – and even during doubles, the distance between the partners is still far greater than two metres most of the time.

“But I’m not sure how much control tournament organisers necessarily have outside of ‘work hours’. Are athletes mixing among themselves at breakfast? Are they using the same elevator? Are they allowed into each others’ rooms in the hotel? This will all have an impact on a possible spread.”

Dr Tang has instead urged extra caution during what he described as a ‘critical period’ for health services across the globe.

He added:

“Every contact situation carries a risk, and we should do all we can to minimise these risks until all the vulnerable are vaccinated, if possible.

“The appearance of multiple new variants is likely to continue as the virus adapts to humans, but we need to reduce the spread to allow our healthcare systems to cope during this critical period.”