While 2020 has brought disruption to global industries due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has also led to new innovations. As organisations and institutions around the world work to tackle the spread of the virus, they are producing pioneering ideas that are now entering the sporting world.
Following its commitment to using the latest technology to help advance the competition, LaLiga’s new coronavirus efforts have seen two new Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests rolled out at 10 Spanish clubs that could radically improve the testing process.
In collaboration with SYNLAB, the diagnostics laboratory that LaLiga has been working with to carry out PCR tests on players and staff, LaLiga is trialling two new types of test: a saliva sampling test and a mouthwash sampling test.
The clubs who are involved in the new tests have been selected to represent a diverse geographical cross-section of Spain, where cases of the virus are growing at different rates.
With the saliva sampling test, a sample of between 1.0ml and 1.5ml of saliva is collected in a cup and forwarded to a SYNLAB laboratory. It has been trialled by SD Huesca, Atlético de Madrid, Real Sociedad, Málaga CF and Girona FC.
The mouthwash sampling test sees the patient use a throat rinse solution, which is gargled before being deposited into a cup, from which a specimen is forwarded to a SYNLAB laboratory. The five clubs piloting this test are Real Betis, Deportivo Alavés, Valencia CF, UD Almería and Real Oviedo.
While some other football leagues have also started experimenting with these new tests, LaLiga is the first to complete parallel testing.
During the 10-club trial period, the players and staff involved have also been taking the regular nasopharyngeal PCR tests in order to compare for accuracy. The results from both tests have been the same, as was also proven during SYNLAB’s own initial trials.
“At SYNLAB, we have been learning and testing,” said Dr. Santiago Valor, SYNLAB’s chief medical officer. “In the last few months, we have been testing this new sample type to see if the specificity is the same. The results were very good; with 100 percent accuracy.”
“In some specific situations, with one player that was recovering from COVID 19, it was known that he was sick but he tested negative with the swab, while testing positive with the saliva,” Dr. Valor continued. “This means that the saliva test was even more accurate at the end of the infection.”
Tests that are far less invasive and easier for wider public
The costs of the tests are similar, but there are many benefits associated with the new models, the most obvious being that they are less invasive than the current testing process that sees a swab inserted into a patient’s throat or nose.
“Since last season, we have been talking with the lab because we knew that the traditional way of taking the PCR test is quite invasive for the players and all the members of the clubs who are tested four or five times per week,” explained Jaime Blanco, executive agent in the LaLiga presidents' office.
“For wider society and members of the public, the implications of these new results are very promising because you don’t need a medical professional to oversee the process,” he continued. “It could create a situation where people can take the tests quickly and easily at home, without the discomfort of the nose swab but with the same accuracy.”
Increased safety for healthcare professionals
Dr. Rafael Muela, the head of medical services at Real Betis, broke down some of the science behind the two new forms of PCR testing, outlining three clear benefits aside from the comfort factor.
“There are clear medical studies that show there is a higher concentration of the virus in saliva,” he explained. “This system for detection through saliva also contributes to the protection of the healthcare workers. There are a lot of healthcare providers who have caught the virus because they’re the ones who’ve been carrying out the PCR tests. So, this can really reduce this type of contagion in a very considerable manner.”
“Then there’s the advantage that patients don’t have to go to a healthcare centre because these samples can just be picked up from the home,” he continued. “That obviously prevents the queues of people waiting to take the test.”
In addition to reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19 during the diagnostic process, Dr. Muela also explained that some patients may have conditions that are aggravated by the nasopharyngeal tests.
“There are patients who have blood or haematological problems and so they have problems for coagulation,” he said. “Swabbing can cause some sort of bruising or haemorrhages, so obviously by using this new process that can be avoided.”
There are also advantages for children as it is much easier to obtain a saliva or mouthwash simple from a young child than it is to use the nasal swabbing method. As Dr. Valor explained: “It is a good opportunity for kids, for example, that can be tested frequently with these sample types. You can ramp up offering to society since you don´t need installations or well-trained people to collect a good sample.”
The next steps
For now, LaLiga plans to roll these tests out to more clubs and, eventually, the clubs themselves can decide based on which tests their players and staff prefer.
Across the general population, with LaLiga clubs having gathered so much evidence of the accuracy of the saliva and mouthwash samples, it is expected that such tests will become more and more common across the country.
“In Spain, we are the first ones to use it apart from one or two hospitals to try to see how it works,” Blanco explained. “I’m sure that in one or two months we’ll see all over Spain that more and more hospitals are moving towards saliva and mouthwash.”
This would represent a significant step forward for coronavirus testing in Europe and a positive endorsement for LaLiga, which has committed significant resources to managing the pandemic at a local level and sharing its insights with wider society.
Since March, LaLiga has worked to help other leagues and organisations by sharing its sanitary protocols and promoting knowledge sharing between the world’s footballing bodies. It has also offered assistance to global researchers, lending computing power to drive Folding@Home’s simulations of coronavirus protein dynamics.
Using its global platforms, it has also assisted with the mass communication of sanitary guidelines, such as the need to download the Spanish government’s Radar COVID application. After promoting the application during match broadcasts, downloads of the application rose by more than 100,000 in a day.
“I think we have to realise that LaLiga’s organisation and contribution during the pandemic has been tremendous,” Dr. Muela concluded. “I think we’ll see more collaboration between LaLiga and the national health care authorities because they will benefit a lot from the different approaches LaLiga has been trying out.”