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Explained: Why Saina Nehwal being allowed to play despite testing Covid-19 positive is good news for sport

Here's why the doctors decided that Saina Nehwal was no threat to the tournament and how this is good news for athletes who have tested positive in the past.

Written by Shivani Naik |
Updated: January 22, 2021 2:29:37 pm
Saina Nehwal, Saina Nehwal coronavirus, Thailand Open, Saina Nehwal health, Badminton tournament, Thailand Open BWF Super-1000, Explained sports express explainedFamous Shuttler Saina Nehwal is in action at Syed Modi Championship at BBD Stadium in Lucknow on Thursday. Express Photo by Vishal Srivastav. 22.11.2018. *** Local Caption *** Famous Shuttler Saina Nehwal is in action at Syed Modi Championship at BBD Stadium in Lucknow. (File)

India’s ace shuttler Saina Nehwal had tested positive for Covid-19 before her first round match of the Thailand Open BWF Super-1000, the first major international unlockdown badminton tournament in Bangkok. However, after a few more tests, she was allowed to take court. Explaining why the doctors decided that she was no threat to the tournament and how this is good news for athletes who have tested positive in the past.

What was the Saina Nehwal case in Bangkok?

Saina Nehwal had tested positive for Covid-19 in a test conducted at Hyderabad on December 7. She was largely asymptomatic, would recover, test negative, wait a week and resume training before flying out to Thailand on January 3. After a week’s quarantine in which she twice tested negative, Saina would head for her third test on the eve of the tournament beginning on January 11. On the morning of January 12, she would be pulled out from warm up, be asked to concede a walkover, and told she had tested positive the previous day (along with 3 others). Upon retesting, she would still be positive. Suspecting this to be a case of ‘false positive’, she would persist in explaining to organisers to reconsider. A second test (serological this time) would confirm her doubt.

How was she allowed to play despite a positive?

When the retest delivered a positive for Saina, the other three including Egyptian player Elgamal returned negative. All four underwent a second PCR test and an antibody blood test for further confirmation. The Diagnosis and Investigation Committee of the Thailand Ministry of Public Health – a working group of six doctors formed just for this tournament concluded that Nehwal (and two others) tested positive on the PCR test but their “antibody IgG was positive.” The trio had all contracted COVID-19 in late 2020, and the committee was satisfied that they are not infected and do not pose a danger to the tournament. Elgamal tested positive on the PCR test but his antibody IgG was negative, which indicated he had no antibodies for the virus. Since Elgamal had not contracted COVID-19 before, he was withdrawn.

Saina Nehwal, Saina Nehwal coronavirus, Thailand Open, Saina Nehwal health, Badminton tournament, Thailand Open BWF Super-1000, Explained sports express explained Saina Nehwal getting her third coronavirus test done. (Source: Screengrab)

What does IgG test mean?

Early after infection (usually after the first week), antibodies known as immunoglobulin M (IgM) develop as the first line of defense. These are not typically long-lasting. Later, after the first 2-4 weeks, beyond 14 days, following infection, IgG, more durable antibodies get produced. These decide if a person was infected recently (IgM) or more distantly (IgG). These may last for 6 months though the IgG Antibody test confirms an adaptive immune response to SARS-CoV-2, indicating recent or prior infection. Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system in response to an infection and are specific to that particular infection. They are found in the liquid part of blood specimens – serum or plasma. It is unknown at this point how much protection (immunity) antibodies might provide against another infection or reinfection. It also suggests that you may no longer be infectious. This was pointed out by the Indians and accepted by the Thai authorities allowing Saina to play.

How did the others react?

The Malaysian badminton association BAM which had two players lined up against Saina and Prannoy in matches the following day, expressed their ‘displeasure’ at especially the Saina match, stressing that it was unfair on the opponent who was told she had a walkover. The match did go ahead, but BAM ensured their informal dissatisfaction was on record. The following day a Hong Kong pair would refuse to take the court against Germans whose support staff had tested positive. This pointed to possible flare-ups in case those testing positive were allowed to compete, with skepticism about the IgG test. Danish Anders Antonsen too had tested positive in early December and landed in Bangkok aware that an off-test might throw up a positive forcing him off the court. He was happy however to learn of the Indian precedent.

Which other sporting leagues follow this?

Wall Street Journal reported this week that NBA players who already had Covid didn’t have to quarantine following additional exposure if they are within 90 days of their initial diagnosis and don’t have symptoms of the disease, according to the league’s health and safety protocols, which are based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last updated in October. Research suggests immune protection lasts for at least six months and potentially years. There is little evidence for confirmed reinfection within six months, and the CDC is currently reviewing the scientific literature “and the possibility of extending the 90-day timeframe to 180 days,” John Brooks, the chief medical officer for the agency’s Covid-19 emergency response, told WSJ. NBA had 115 confirmed cases since March, including 16 over the last week. One of NBA’s biggest stars Kevin Durant was one of the first to test positive last season— and continues to register antibodies nearly 10 months after he contracted the virus in March, according to ESPN.

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What are ramifications for the Olympics?

With over 15,000 athletes expected at the Olympics and Paralympics, the Thailand Open might serve as a good cautionary tale. With athletes having waited 5 years to compete, Japan might be hard pressed to consider only a positive in PCR as adequate reasons to bar an athlete who might’ve been infected in previous months, but is no longer infectious. A meeting in December to put in place protocols for July 2021 Games factored in this possibility while including an immediate IgG test for those who might be infected earlier.

What are other complications heading into the Olympics and sport’s ambitious overcompensating 2021 season?

It has been reported that at least 4 variants arising from London (B.1.1.7), Japan, Manaus (P.1) and South Africa (B.1.351) are in circulation. The SA and Manaus variant is considered devilish because it can escape through antibodies, according to American epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani. Japan is in a health emergency, even as the UK strain is highly transmissible. This puts a question on if vaccines will remain effective against variants and if immunity built for previous variants will safeguard from new one.

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