European Championship with side effects – insight into infoXpand’s research work

The epidemiological situation in a country determines the extent to which the number of infections increases as a result of a major event such as the European Football Championship.

The European Football Championship 2020 had a very different impact on the incidence of infection during the coronavirus pandemic in the countries involved. The extent to which the number of infections and deaths from COVID-19 increased depended primarily on the initial situation. Physicists have established this in an analysis of epidemiological data. The Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen, the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, the Universities of Bonn and Göttingen and the PUNCH4NFDI consortium in the national research data infrastructure were involved in the study.

Pathogens have an easy time at international soccer tournaments. This is because many people watch the matches in groups, whether in a private living room, in a pub or at public viewing events, where the coronavirus can easily spread. There is clear evidence that the 2020 European Football Championship, which took place in summer 2021, led to numerous infections. However, the size of the effect varies greatly from country to country. The team from Göttingen, Bonn and Munich investigated how the incidence of infection developed during and after the European Championships for twelve of the participating countries. The researchers used the case numbers broken down by gender to distinguish the contribution of the European Championship to the incidence of infection from other factors, as more men than women watch soccer matches. This gender ratio is also reflected in different infection rates. From this, the team calculated how many infections were due to people watching the games together.

The example of the Czech Republic and England is a good illustration of the different effects of the pandemic: the Czech Republic played five matches at the last European Football Championship. However, despite the great enthusiasm for soccer in the country, there were only around 460 additional infections per million inhabitants. The European Championships in England had a much greater effect. As a result, around 11,000 people per million inhabitants were infected with the coronavirus – fifteen times as many. This was not due to the larger number of matches, as the English team played seven games up to the final, but rather to the completely different starting situation: in the Czech Republic there were comparatively few infections at the beginning of the European Championships, whereas in England the number of cases was already high at that time. The reproduction rate, which indicates how many people an infected person infects, was also relatively high. “In this situation with high case numbers and a high reproduction rate, the major sporting event has boosted the infection rate considerably,” says Viola Priesemann from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen.

Around 840,000 additional infections due to the European Championships

Infections occurred less in stadiums than at private gatherings, for example in pubs and homes where people watched the games together. And, of course, the infections did not stop at the match days – because each infected person started a chain of infection that is estimated to have infected a further four people on average per virus carrier in the period up to the end of July 2021. “This shows that infections are not a private matter,” says Viola Priesemann. “This is because the virus also spreads to vulnerable population groups via such chains of infection.” And it is precisely among older people or people with pre-existing conditions, only a small proportion of whom are likely to have watched the games themselves in larger groups, that deaths occur.

The estimates for all twelve countries surveyed together showed around 840,000 additional infections due to EM. The team was unable to estimate the extent to which COVID-19 spread during the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as the infection data was no longer available in the necessary level of detail for many countries.

In general, however, the following applies to major events during a pandemic: “If vulnerable groups are to be protected, preventive measures are necessary at a major sporting event,” says Philip Bechtle from the University of Bonn, “The comparison of countries during the 2020 European Championships clearly shows that, above all, a low incidence and a low reproduction number R are the best basis for keeping superspreading events caused by major events to a manageable level. Masks, increased testing and vaccination as well as proactive contact reduction also help to contain the incidence of infection.” In this way, the burden on the heavily strained healthcare system caused by major events in future pandemics can be reduced.