Researchers used the international football tournament, held during winter for the first time in its history, as a model for mitigating virus spread at mass gatherings.
They discovered that the competition led to a significant rise in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations across Qatar, which spectators from across the globe then took home to their respective countries.
However, the research team from Canada found that pre-match testing and vaccinations for spectators could have mitigated the spread of the disease.
It’s hoped the fresh research, published in the journal PLoS Computational Biology, can serve as a warning ahead of the Olympic Games in Paris later this year and the next World Cup held across North America in 2026.
The researchers, from York University in Toronto, Canada, used the 2022 FIFA World Cup as a case study to evaluate the spread of viruses at mass gatherings.
The tournament culminated in Argentina’s third and captain Lionel Messi’s first World Cup success after a close victory over France in the final via an intense penalty shootout.
But as well as the South American nation triumphing in the tournament, the other big winner of the tournament was COVID-19, the researchers said.
The virus spread amongst the crowds of fans throughout the tournament despite a drop in cases in Qatar before the World Cup.
Infections were found to have peaked at the beginning of the quarter-final stage of the tournament.
The research team developed a technique to sample initial conditions stemming from possible matches held between visiting teams, which then formed the basis of independent simulations of each game.
Their simulations showed that pre-travel screenings of fans before they departed their home nations did little to prevent infections and hospitalizations from the virus.
However, screening both staff and spectators before matches with either a rapid-flow antigen test half a day before or a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test one and a half days before a match proved a more effective method.
Conducting both pre-travel and pre-match testing had even better outcomes for curbing the spread of the virus.
However, the researchers also found that the most effective method was ensuring all visitors had received their COVID vaccinations – either a second dose or a booster dose – within a few months before traveling to Qatar.
“That precaution reduced the rate of infection and particularly the rate of hospitalizations,” Martin Grunnill, a postdoctoral fellow at York University, explained.
Dr. Jianhong Wu, a distinguished research professor at York’s Faculty of Science, said he hoped his team’s research could advise organizers of upcoming mass spectator events to prevent the spread of COVID.
“The ambitious goal of the partnership research includes developing modeling technologies that can be used to assist in the preparation of major mass gathering events, whether religious or sports-related in nature or a major festival,” Dr Wu said.
“We hope these platforms can be used to provide input into how to help manage respiratory infection risk for the next FIFA World Cup, hosted by North America, and the Olympic Games in Paris this summer.”
Dr. Wu also highlighted the fact that even before the global Coronavirus pandemic, large events attracting huge crowds of people spurred the spread of diseases – sometimes across the world.
Dr. Grunnill added: “In the case of international events like the FIFA World Cup where visitors come from all over the world and return home, there is a higher chance of infections spreading beyond the host country.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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