Skip to main content

Sports bubbles are good places to study COVID-19

Sports bubbles are good places to study COVID-19


It’s easy to track the virus in a place where everyone’s on a schedule

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NBA Restart 2020 - Setup Shots
Practice courts inside the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida.
Photo by Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images

Sports are coming back in the United States, and as they do, professional leagues are creating conditions that researchers say are tailor-made to study COVID-19. They offer sizable groups of people who are regularly monitored by doctors. When leagues enter a pandemic isolation zone, like the National Basketball Association plans to at Disney World, the controlled environment offers even more opportunities to understand the virus.

Whether sports should come back is still debatable — the pandemic is surging, and many experts are concerned that it’s not possible to create a safe environment for the athletes and staff — but leagues are forging ahead with plans for reopening. And as they do, they’re pushing medical and technical research along with it. The sports “bubbles” are also home to experimental new tech and trials of new ways of testing for COVID-19. They might also tell us more about how the virus spreads.

“There’s a lot of interest in sports coming back, and they could also be a plan for how we bring back universities, colleges and school safely. It’s the same concept, with a lot of people in close proximity to each other,” says Priya Sampathkumar, an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic who’s working on an NBA antibody study. “It’s trying it out — if we can’t keep them safe, maybe it’s not safe to open up.”

League partnerships

Major League Baseball participated in the first nationwide coronavirus antibody study in April. At the time, there hadn’t been any effort to check what percentage of the US population had been infected with the coronavirus. The league has teams spread around the country, so testing players, support staff, and their families would give a snapshot of how widely the virus had spread.

“The authors of the study realized they had a ready-made national network of medical providers — sports medicine physicians and orthopedists — who were scattered in a really broad number of markets and would be able to help conduct these tests. It was really, really clever,” says Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University. And the data the study collected was incredibly valuable: it found that less than 1 percent of MLB employees had antibodies to the coronavirus. “That was the moment for me to shut down pretty much any argument that there are just a ridiculous number of undiagnosed cases,” Binney says.

“That was the moment for me to shut down pretty much any argument that there are just a ridiculous number of undiagnosed cases.”

Sampathkumar is doing a similar antibody study with the NBA. The league had a few high-profile positive cases back in March and April, so researchers knew the virus was introduced into the league. Because the players are in close contact, the virus probably had some amount of spread within the group, and some may not have shown symptoms. “It would be a way to assess the true spread of the infection within a sort of closed population,” she says.

Proving ground

The closed-off NBA bubble is dedicated to basketball, but it’s also a makeshift COVID-19 research laboratory. The league is helping trial a saliva-based COVID-19 test, and any players who opt in will help the Yale School of Public Health validate their testing method.

Players in Orlando will be tested almost every day using the typical method: having a swab shoved deep inside their nose. Players who enroll in the Yale study, though, will also give a saliva sample along with each test. The team will compare the two types of tests and check if 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 research scientist leading the project. Gathering a group of people to study is usually a huge challenge. “What just made this really possible was that they already had staff out there collecting samples,” she says. “This really enabled us to do something that it’s hard to say if we would have been able to do otherwise.” If saliva proves to work just as well as a swab, and gets authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, the NBA might adopt it as their standard testing method. The research team expects they’ll have results by the end of July.

A saliva-based test would be valuable for similar environments where testing has to happen regularly, Sampathkumar, who is not involved in that study, says. “It can potentially be scaled up and done for schools and colleges, because it’s relatively non-invasive.”

The NBA is also giving players the option of wearing a smart ring, made by Oura Health, that tracks things like heart rate and body temperature. Researchers working with Oura think that it can flag subtle changes that could indicate someone is sick before they feel symptoms. Scientists at the University of Michigan will evaluate the data from athletes wearing the ring and flag anyone they think the data shows might have early signs of an illness.

Magic get OK to test players for COVID-19; NBA eyes staging games in Orlando
Coronavirus test swabs in Miami, Florida.
Photo by David Santiago / Miami Herald / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The caveat: there’s still no published evidence showing that the ring can catch 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. Athletes will be tested almost daily for COVID-19, so the league is not in any way relying on the ring to guide baseline testing — but the data might be used to flag players for additional tests, Oura Health CEO Harpreet Rai told The Verge.

Benjamin Smarr, a University of California, San Diego data scientist working with Oura on the studies, says that the information is still valuable, even if it’s not a proven way to detect illness. Because they’re being tested anyway, he says, players can get a sense of how the data they see from the ring matches the way they feel and how that relates to their test results.

NBA athletes are also able to opt in to the University of California, San Francisco study on the Oura ring. They’re being encouraged to do so, Rai says. It’s unclear, though, how many players might decide to participate in the study or how many will choose to use the ring at all. Their data will be protected: the league’s policies make it clear that the teams won’t have access to player’s physiological data, and it won’t be able to be used in contract negotiations. But some NBA athletes said on social media that they had some 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 to keep the coronavirus shut out entirely of the sports “bubbles” in Orlando (where the Women’s National Basketball Association, NBA and Major League Soccer will play) and Utah (where the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup is underway). It’s a challenge, particularly when athletes are traveling in from areas where the virus is widespread: players have already tested positive after arriving in the MLS isolation zone.

If the virus starts to spread within the isolation zones, it should be relatively easy to trace the path it traveled

If the virus starts to spread within the isolation zones, though, it should be relatively easy to trace the path it traveled. In the outside world, it’s hard for people to remember where they go and who they interact with, says Angela Rasmussen, a research scientist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. If you’re on a tight schedule and living in a central location, like athletes in these environments are, that information is easy to access. “You can work out, not only the number of contacts you’ve had, but the types of interactions you have with those people.”

That will make it easier than usual for doctors to track down anyone who may have been exposed to the virus, which is important for the safety of the people inside the bubbles. But hypothetically, it could also help scientists learn more about the coronavirus. It might make it easier to learn how long it takes for people exposed to the virus to show up as positive on a test, for example. NBA players are being tested close to every single day, so it’d be easier to pinpoint the moment they started to test positive.

Tracking people over a long period of time is one of the best ways to understand how the coronavirus spreads, but those types of studies are resource-intensive. “We’ve seen a study of 30 people here, a few people there, that have helped us understand a little bit more about, for example, asymptomatic transmission,” Binney says. “The most interesting thing will be having data points regularly, from the same person.”

At least one league, the NBA, is reportedly thinking about those issues. The league is putting together a group of experts to think through research approaches to the bubble, Sampathkumar says. “They’re willing to share the data that they come up with, and are asking for input on the type of data they should collect,” she says.

The information is important for the league itself because it helps it manage the health and safety of its employees. But learning more about the virus and how it spreads is useful for everyone, not just professional athletes holed up at Disney World. “That could be really valuable information,” Rasmussen says. “And that could be extrapolated to the larger population.”

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 6:45 AM UTC Dimorphos didn’t even see it coming

Thomas Ricker6:45 AM UTC
Check out this delightful DART Easter egg.

Just Google for “NASA DART.” You’re welcome.

Richard Lawler12:00 AM UTC
A direct strike at 14,000 mph.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) scored a hit on the asteroid Dimorphos, but as Mary Beth Griggs explains, the real science work is just beginning.

Now planetary scientists will wait to see how the impact changed the asteroid’s orbit, and to download pictures from DART’s LICIACube satellite which had a front-row seat to the crash.

Asian America learns how to hit back

The desperate, confused, righteous campaign to stop Asian hate

Esther WangSep 26
The Verge
We’re about an hour away from a space crash.

At 7:14PM ET, a NASA spacecraft is going to smash into an asteroid! Coverage of the collision — called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test — is now live.

Emma RothSep 26
There’s a surprise in the sky tonight.

Jupiter will be about 367 million miles away from Earth this evening. While that may seem like a long way, it’s the closest it’s been to our home planet since 1963.

During this time, Jupiter will be visible to the naked eye (but binoculars can help). You can check where and when you can get a glimpse of the gas giant from this website.

Emma RothSep 26
Missing classic Mario?

One fan, who goes by the name Metroid Mike 64 on Twitter, just built a full-on 2D Mario game inside Super Mario Maker 2 complete with 40 levels and eight worlds.

Looking at the gameplay shared on Twitter is enough to make me want to break out my SNES, or at least buy Super Mario Maker 2 so I can play this epic retro revamp.

External Link
Russell BrandomSep 26
The US might still force TikTok into a data security deal with Oracle.

The New York Times says the White House is still working on TikTok’s Trump-era data security deal, which has been in a weird limbo for nearly two years now. The terms are basically the same: Oracle plays babysitter but the app doesn’t get banned. Maybe it will happen now, though?

Richard LawlerSep 26
Don’t miss this dive into Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio flick.

Andrew Webster and Charles Pulliam-Moore covered Netflix’s Tudum reveals (yes, it’s going to keep using that brand name) over the weekend as the streamer showed off things that haven’t been canceled yet.

Beyond The Way of the Househusband season two news and timing information about two The Witcher projects, you should make time for this incredible behind-the-scenes video showing the process of making Pinocchio.

External Link
Russell BrandomSep 26
Edward Snowden has been granted Russian citizenship.

The NSA whistleblower has been living in Russia for the 9 years — first as a refugee, then on a series of temporary residency permits. He applied for Russian citizenship in November 2020, but has said he won’t renounce his status as a U.S. citizen.

External Link
Emma RothSep 26
Netflix’s gaming bet gets even bigger.

Even though fewer than one percent of Netflix subscribers have tried its mobile games, Netflix just opened up another studio in Finland after acquiring the Helsinki-based Next Games earlier this year.

The former vice president of Zynga Games, Marko Lastikka, will serve as the studio director. His track record includes working on SimCity BuildIt for EA and FarmVille 3.

External Link
Vietnam’s EV aspirant is giving big Potemkin village vibes

Idle equipment, absent workers, deserted villages, an empty swimming pool. VinFast is Vietnam’s answer to Tesla, with the goal of making 1 million EVs in the next 5-6 years to sell to customers US, Canada and Europe. With these lofty goals, the company invited a bunch of social media influencers, as well as some auto journalists, on a “a four-day, multicity extravaganza” that seemed more weird than convincing, according to Bloomberg.

James VincentSep 26
Today, 39 years ago, the world didn’t end.

And it’s thanks to one man: Stanislav Petrov, a USSR military officer who, on September 26th, 1983, took the decision not to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the US. Petrov correctly guessed that satellite readings showing inbound nukes were faulty, and so likely saved the world from nuclear war. As journalist Tom Chivers put it on Twitter, “Happy Stanislav Petrov Day to those who celebrate!” Read more about Petrov’s life here.

Soviet Colonel who prevented 1983 nuclear response
Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images
The Verge
James VincentSep 26
Deepfakes were made for Disney.

You might have seen the news this weekend that the voice of James Earl Jones is being cloned using AI so his performance as Darth Vader in Star Wars can live on forever.

Reading the story, it struck me how perfect deepfakes are for Disney — a company that profits from original characters, fans' nostalgia, and an uncanny ability to twist copyright law to its liking. And now, with deepfakes, Disney’s most iconic performances will live on forever, ensuring the magic never dies.