Formula One drivers and staff will need to be held in solitary confinement for up to five days before every race to ensure they are free of coronavirus according to top European virologists.
F1 has been on hold since March when its season-opener in Australia got the red light after a member of the McLaren team tested positive for Covid-19. Since then, F1 has postponed or cancelled 10 of its 22 races but hopes to get underway in July with a race in Austria.
If this goes ahead, F1's teams and drivers will fly there from the UK, Italy and Switzerland which increases the risk of someone catching and spreading the virus.
In order to prevent this from happening, F1's motorsport boss Ross Brawn told Sky Sports earlier this week that "everybody will be tested and will receive clearance before they can go in to the paddock." According to experts, all F1 personnel will need to be held in isolation for as much as five days and tested three times during that period in order to get the all-clear.
The reason for this is that "current tests are not sensitive enough to detect infections within the first couple of days after infection," says Dr Jeremy Rossman, a virologist at the University of Kent. "Most people will have a detectable virus in three to five days, so testing everyone three times over a span of five days would give good confidence that most people are not infected." Crucially, he adds that "all staff would have to be isolated during the testing and during the whole event."
In summary, if F1 drivers or staff catch the virus during the five days prior to their test, it won't yet be detectable. Their test would show up as being negative when the personnel are actually positive and could go on to infect other people at the track.
To rule out this risk, people whose tests are negative would need to be tested at least one more time five days later in case they caught the virus in the run up to their first test. They would need to be in solitary confinement for that five day period because if they were in contact with other people during that time they could pick up the virus from them.
To ensure that personnel are clear of coronavirus, this process of quarantining and testing has to be done in advance of every race, including the British Grand Prix if that goes ahead. Personnel would need to test negative every time in order to attend a race whereas anyone who tests positive could not.
It reflects comments from Marc van Ranst, a virologist who is advising Uefa about the coronavirus. Talking to ITV News about the plan to restart the Premier League, he said "if you get your infection during the day, you will not be able to diagnose it in the evening. It takes a while for the virus to take hold and be detectable. It is detectable in your throat after three days before you develop symptoms, but it won’t be detectable in a couple of hours after being infected."
Rossman says that "even this stringent testing process would likely miss an individual with a prolonged incubation" as "there are some reports of incubation periods as long as two weeks."
He adds that "just one infected person that slips through the isolation could then spread the virus to multiple people, especially over a multiple day event...I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate the risks associated with the event, though it is possible to minimise them, albeit with significant effort of all people involved."
Rossman says this effort involves standard measures such as staff regularly washing their hands, keeping six feet apart from each other and not touching their face. In addition, "providing sanitiser stations and requiring all staff to wear face coverings, could all help to reduce any transmission that does slip through the testing. Finally, requiring all staff to self-isolate for two weeks when they return home could also help to minimise virus transmission."
The teams may have no choice about this as the UK government is expected to introduce a 14-day quarantine on incoming travellers from the end of May. If this is still in place in July it could be a roadblock for F1 as it hopes to host as many as 18 races over a six month period.
This hasn't been lost on the drivers. Alex Wurz, the chairman of Grand Prix Drivers' Association, said on Friday that he thought the plans are being handled "in a typical F1 safety way which is immaculate." However, he admitted that "if half of the paddock was stuck in quarantine that would throw a spanner in the gearbox of going racing in July."
Rossman says "the international nature of this event is one of the biggest causes of concern. I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate the risks associated with the event...Removing the spectators is a good step, but with the very large number of support staff, the risks of international transmission and triggering multiple Covid-19 resurgences is very real."
World Health Organization (WHO) adviser Professor David Heymann says the only hope of shortcutting the days of quarantine comes from studies to see if testing in the nasal passage allows the virus to be detected sooner. He says there is no guarantee that the studies will be fruitful but if they are, it "might compensate for some of the lag period – by the time of the F1 some of these new procedures may have been proven to be effective."
It could be too late as Brawn revealed recently that he is due to meet the drivers shortly to discuss F1's plans with them. The drivers hold the keys as were instrumental in putting the brakes on the season-opener following the case of Covid-19 at the track.
Four-time title-winner Sebastian Vettel and his former team mate Kimi Räikkönen secretly flew back from Australia to their homes in Switzerland in the middle of the night whilst reigning champion Lewis Hamilton posted a message on Instagram saying: "Honestly don’t want to leave my hotel room."
It drove the teams to take a vote on whether to continue and this is what sent the season into the pits. Time will tell whether the steps F1 is taking are enough to rev it up again.
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