Virus-tracking to the beat: Scientists happy with concert test data

By dpa correspondents

An unusual concert took place in the German city of Leipzig on Saturday, with scientists keeping close tabs on the crowd in a bid to study the risk of coronavirus infection at large events.

German pop singer Tim Bendzko teamed up with scientists from the University Hospital in Halle to put on the arena show, which comes amid debate in Germany about whether large-scale events at concert halls and football stadiums can resume during the pandemic.

Bendzko welcomed the 1,400 concert-goers, thanking them for coming and “for helping us to return to normality as quickly as possible.”

All of the attendees had to provide a negative test result for the virus prior to the concert and wore FFP2 masks during the event. On reaching the venue, each person’s temperature was taken.

The concert-goers were fitted with contact-tracing devices, while sensors on the ceiling of the venue collected data on their movements.

“We want to study how much contact the participants have with one another during the concert – which is actually still not clear,” said Stefan Moritz, who is leading the study.

Fluorescent disinfectant was also distributed. “After the event, we can see with UV [ultra-violet] lamps which surfaces glow in particular, meaning they were touched particularly often,” Moritz explained.

The researchers also tracked the movement of aerosols – the smallest particles in the air that can carry the virus.

The researchers carried out three scenarios at the concert to compare ways to reduce risk.

The first scenario resembled concerts before the pandemic, while the second involved viewers following health and safety guidelines. The third involved a reduced number of attendees who were kept 1.5 metres away from each other.

Two concert-goers said they had been drawn to attend the event out of a desire to support the research. Identifying themselves as Kathleen and Felix, they told dpa they had come from Goerlitz on the Polish border. The day was exhausting, they said, as everyone had to wear masks in the heated hall.

At the end of the event, Bendzko called it a success and said he had expected it to feel more sterile and more like an experiment. “But we really enjoyed it… today is the first step towards normality.”

Ahead of the concert, organizers struggled, as only about a third of the 4,200 volunteers they had hoped for signed up.

Some late registrations trickled in shortly before the concert, however, and the researchers said they were confident that the event would generate the data they were seeking.

They speculated that the lower uptake was due to regional holidays and rising case numbers in Germany.

The project, dubbed Restart-19, costs some 1 million euros (1.17 million dollars) and is a joint effort between the eastern states of Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony.

In those two states, events with crowds of up to 1,000 people are currently allowed under certain conditions.

But the researchers hope to find ways to reinstate cultural and sporting events without needing such blanket bans.

“It’s all about taking an evidence-based approach,” said Michael Gekle, dean of the medical faculty at Halle University.

He said he agreed with the decision to close down public life in March and April, but said now, at this later stage, it was a matter of adapting to the risk – and that means gathering data.

“If someone asks now what kind of risk is involved in an event like this, nobody knows,” Gekle said.

The aim is to develop a mathematical model to calculate the risk of large-scale events during the pandemic.

The results of the study are expected in October.

Similar research is under way in Australia, Belgium and Denmark, with related goals in mind.

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