A first-of-its-kind study conducted in collaboration with the LSU School of Kinesiology, LSU Athletics, Pennington Biomedical Research Center and Our Lady of the Lake investigated how the immune systems of elite student-athletes responded to the COVID-19 virus.
Soccer players who were diagnosed with COVID-19 were able to recover their immune systems to their initial level after CDC-recommended isolation. This is in stark contrast to older adults with comorbidities, who tend to be at higher risk of serious side effects and symptoms, and even death.
“When COVID-19 really started to get out of control, we met with Neil Johannsen, an exercise physiologist at LSU, and athletic trainers Derek Calvert and Jack Marucci, and discussed what we could do to make sure our athletes stayed healthy. he especially wanted to make sure the athletes weren’t at risk of secondary infections when they returned from isolation,” said Guillaume Spielmann, an associate professor in the LSU School of Kinesiology.
Effective isolation after COVID infection
“When the idea for the research started, we discussed why not turn a negative into a positive and help with the research to find some answers. If we can do things to better understand the virus, let’s do it,” said Jack Marucci, Director of Athletic Training at LSU. “Student-athletes were willing to be a part of this.”
During that time at the start of the COVID pandemic, the CDC had recommended 14 days of isolation.
“There was a lot of unknown during this time. We’re looking at a population that’s extremely close to each other during snaps and during games. We wanted to make sure that since they’re literally face-to-face with other players, that their salivaries, their defenses mouths were virtually intact and that part of their immune system was not affected by the disease; that there were no lasting effects of the disease,” Spielmann said.
Saliva samples were collected from 29 student-athletes in 2020, prior to a COVID vaccine. Fourteen were COVID positive and 15 had no history of infection. Of the 14, only six reported mild symptoms of the virus, the other eight remained asymptomatic throughout the isolation period.
“Salivary immunity is extremely important to ensure people don’t get secondary infections, so when athletes come back we need to make sure they are as healthy as possible. We found that the isolation period was enough to restore the athletes’ saliva.” . immunity to the level seen in uninfected players,” Spielmann said.
Play safely again after COVID
These findings suggested that student-athletes could safely return to practice and play soccer without risk of secondary infection; that his immune system was not at risk when playing the close contact sport.
“I was a little concerned about long-haul flights and other more significant outcomes, such as concerns about developing myocarditis. Participating in athletics at an elite level can be stressful on the body, and you’ll want to arm yourself with the best scientific information to help understand potential outcomes. This data helped validate some of these decisions that were made. Providing a safe environment for their student-athletes is paramount and this helped move the process forward,” said Shelly Mullenix, senior associate director of athletics from LSU for Health and Wellness.
For this study, three graduate students also participated in the research. His research is now published in scientific reports.
“This type of access is unique in Division I sports. You don’t usually have access to football players, so the fact that we have access is also very important,” Spielmann said. “LSU is a great place for this field.”
“I think this COVID research is something we’re really proud to be a part of and to contribute to finding answers to such a devastating virus,” Marucci said.
Spielmann, an immunologist, researches the impact of stress on the immune systems of elite and tactical athletes, including astronauts and firefighters. But this study is not the first by Spielmann and LSU Athletics. They have worked together to study psychological and physiological health, along with measures of performance in other student-athletes and sports teams. A new study will take a closer look at female athletes’ mental, physiological and immunological resistance to stress. Funded by a grant from the Wu Tsai Foundation, this collaborative research led by Tiffany Stewart at Pennington Biomedical and Spielmann will include the participation of 50 female athletes from LSU.
These groups also work together as part of the healthcare partnership with Our Lady of the Lake. Our Lady of the Lake has committed $170 million over the next 10 years for academic and athletic initiatives. Dr. Catherine O’Neal, Chief of the Our Lady of the Lake Medical Office, said this partnership allows for increased collaboration and research between LSU and Our Lady of the Lake, as well as the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.