Football matches in a bio-secure bubble protocol in Qatar safe: Study

The resumption of professional football matches at the international level under strict adherence to the bio-secure bubble protocol and the gradual return of spectators to stadiums in Qatar have proven safe and not contributing to the spread of COVID-19, according to a study released recently. 

It has highlighted that the safe and infection-free hosting of international tournaments marks an important milestone in Qatar’s preparations for the FIFA World Cup 2022.

The study ‘Resumption of professional football league with spectators during the COVID-19 pandemic: The implementation of Bio-secure bubble protocol,’ has found that during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,  supervised and controlled resumption of football matches with spectators can be done safely provided that a strict Bio-secure bubble protocol has been implemented.

Qatar has become one of the first countries to implement an expanded Bio-secure bubble system by including many team competitors for several sports events with spectators during 2020 and 2021.

The study  has discussed the potential impact of resuming professional football leagues involving international participants adhering to a strict Bio-secure bubble protocol and investigate the consequences of spectators  attendance at such mass events during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in Qatar.   

According to the study Qatar’s recent preparation, strategies, and successful experiences for mitigating infection during professional football tournaments involving international participants were critical in restarting sporting events with or without spectators. However, the safety of Bio-secure bubble system will be fortified further by the current vaccination programmes.  A Bio-secure bubble operates in a strictly controlled environment involving the interaction between a specific set of people, all of whom need to test negative for COVID-19. 

“We conducted a descriptive cohort study involving football players, referees, match officials, local organising committee members, hotel and security staff working in close coordination, and over 10,000 spectators from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (East) and the final match. The study covered almost four weeks of the event (November 19 to December 19, 2020) under a robust bio-secure bubble protocol,” says the study published in the latest issue of Qatar Medical Journal.   

The study has monitored and analysed positive RT-PCR results and clinical symptoms of COVID-19 monitoring among participants, and rapid antigen testing for fan attendance to examine their safe return to the stadiums.

Over the six months (November 2020–April 2021), Qatar has hosted the AFC Champions League West and East Zone matches, including the final and the Amir cup Final in December 2020. In February 2021, it concluded with hosting the FIFA Club World Cup, with spectators permitted to attend and stadiums operating at 30 percent capacity. 

The study has highlighted that, a total of 12,250 RT-PCR tests involving 3,158 individuals in the bio-secure bubble were done over one month for all the AFC (East) matches, including the final match. Overall, 44 matches involving 16 teams were played. During the championship, only five individuals (three LOC members and two match officials) returned positive for COVID-19 infections. Four individuals (three team staff/officials and one person outside the bio-secure bubble) had reactive results. None of the players tested positive for COVID-19 infection. All individuals testing positive were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms, with no one requiring hospitalisation other than symptomatic treatment. 

The overall positivity rate was 0.15% for the entire duration of the AFC (East) Champions League. For the final match, a total of 10,320 rapid antigen tests were done for spectators, of which only one test was positive for COVID-19.