Netherlands venue in pioneering COVID project

Video: Johan Cruijff ArenA (YouTube)

The Johan Cruijff ArenA in Amsterdam (Netherlands) – the home of the Dutch Eredivisie football club Ajax Amsterdam – has come under the glare and full focus of what is being described as a “groundbreaking” scientific research project into how sports venues and other buildings can become safely accessible during COVID-19.

Scientists, employees of the Johan Cruijff Arena and representatives of the national sports center Papendal in Netherlands are joining forces to gain new insights into how aerosols (saliva particles) spread within sports venues. The research should answer the question to what extent spectators run the risk of becoming infected with the deadly COVID-19 in stadia?

The Johan Cruyff Arena is the main stadium of the Dutch capital City of Amsterdam and the home stadium of football club AFC Ajax since its opening. Built from 1993 to 1996 at a cost equivalent to €140 million, it is the largest stadium in the country. Ajax Amsterdam is a Dutch professional football club based in Amsterdam, which plays in the Eredivisie, the top tier of Dutch football. The club is the primary tenant of the Johan Cruyff Arena.

Henk Markerink, CEO, Johan Cruijff ArenA, Netherlands, is a Member of Coliseum Strategic Committee.

In the van of the project is the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) with tests carried out at Johan Cruijff ArenA, along with other facilities. Those involved in the tests, which started on December 3rd, will chiefly be investigating the spread of aerosols in stadia and other locations to measure the risk of COVID-19 contagion in a crowd environment.

Scientists are hoping to determine aerosol density, and how long a virus can survive in the droplets. In the Johan Cruijff ArenA, measurements are first being taken sans an audience, using artificial aerosol generators in the stands. These generators disperse a comparable amount of aerosols as avid football fans. Various sensors have been placed in between to get a good picture of the distribution of very small saliva drops. It is then investigated whether aerosols can be filtered out of the air using an air cleaning system placed next to seat rows.

The ArenA hopes trials can be conducted in the presence of spectators as early as January. However, everything depends on the Government giving the nod. The researchers are also looking at the dose and lifespan of the virus in aerosols, as well as the risk of infection, droplets and aerosol transmission by individuals, aerosol concentrations in sports buildings and the movement of crowd in venues.

Additionally, a general risk analysis methodology is being developed with the objective of helping the sports sector and the Government to further refine their guidelines and protocols. The first results are expected to be available in the early part of 2021.

A spokesperson for Johan Cruijff ArenA told mediapersons that the scientific research is “groundbreaking”, adding, “We are the first football stadium to work with these tests to map the risks for the public and athletes. In the Netherlands anyway, and, as far as we know, also abroad.”

In the coming months, researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology (varsity in Eindhoven, Netherlands) – assisted by the Leiden University Medical Center (hospital in Leiden, Netherlands), Utrecht University (public university in Utrecht, Netherlands) and Johannes Kepler University in Linz (varsity in Linz, Austria) – will be closely scrutinizing how aerosols concentrate and what the lifespan of the virus is in the coming months.

Apart from this, potential infection risks must be identified in addition to current guidelines and protocols within the sport. The aim is to ultimately acquire ‘fundamental knowledge’ about safety within sports arenas.

Saliva drops

For the time being, a clear picture has not emerged whether small saliva drops floating around play a role in the spread of COVID-19, says the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM). However, in a sports environment, where people usually exercise at a short distance and shout, it can be teeming with aerosols.

According to the Eindhoven researchers, “These tiny drops of saliva can remain in the air and travel greater distances than one and a half meters. Spreading the virus via aerosols may, therefore, be possible in athletes or spectators in a stadium or a sports hall.”

In the coming period, the research will mainly be carried out in the Johan Cruijff Arena. A number of artificial aerosol generators have already been set up in the stands that simulate the screams (read the spread of saliva drops) of supporters.

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