The Tokyo Summer Olympics survived the postponement, a mountain of scandals and bad publicity. Now comes the real challenge: to safely organize the world’s largest sporting event in the midst of a pandemic.
When the games kick off on July 23, COVID-19 will still be a global reality. Even with the decision to exclude foreign spectators, more than 60,000 athletes, coaches, national team staff, media and other essential workers will converge on Tokyo from more than 200 countries – each with high rates of transmission, vaccination and different viral variants.
“Based on the number of people arriving and the prevalence of disease around the world, the Olympics could absolutely become a very widespread event that would lead to a number of infections, and spread internationally when people return. at home, ”said Spencer Fox, associate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in modeling infectious diseases. “The precautions they’ve put in place are great, but you can never completely reduce the likelihood of infections.”
Organizers are building on a series of six rulebooks that detail how participants in the Olympic and Paralympic Games can compete, move and socialize, to manage the risks of what will be the biggest COVID-19 bubble in the world. world. While those involved in the games will be somewhat isolated from the Japanese public, Tokyo has ruled out the use of two core principles of containment: quarantines and vaccinations. Without these, experts say infections could spread.
If so, not only could the Olympics become the site of a major epidemic spreading to Japan, it could become a cauldron of new variants gathered from around the world. The risk is that athletes could take them home, potentially fueling the pandemic.
While Japan has experienced much lower transmission rates compared to other wealthy countries, its vaccination campaign is only just beginning, months behind countries like the UK, US and even others. regions of Asia. There are still many unknowns, including the exact number of people who will be coming to Japan, and organizers have yet to decide how many domestic spectators will be allowed to enter the venues.
Depending on the evolution of infection rates, there is still a possibility that more stringent measures will be adopted, with the final version of the playbooks due to be released in June.
“The situation surrounding the coronavirus is constantly changing and we hope that the efforts of the government, the city of Tokyo and other stakeholders will help mitigate the spread of infections,” Tokyo 2020 said in an emailed statement. .
Build a bubble
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Olympic organizers should emulate the NBA, which saw no infection during its three months of racing in the summer and fall of 2020. But the NBA bubble only saw a few hundred athletes. curled up together at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Including staff and coaches, there were less than 1,000 people involved.
Australian Open officials earlier this year took infection control seriously, demanding tests for athletes and mandatory quarantines on arrival, even for competitors. Still, some charter flights to Melbourne have seen cases among athletes and support staff. Although initially open to viewers, fans were later left out for a time during an outbreak of unrelated infections. Injuries attributed to limited practice times were also common.
While the event didn’t lead to a local outbreak or player-to-player transmissions, the challenges show what can happen even when strict precautions are in place.
The magnitude of the risk also varies depending on the sport. A study from the last NFL season in the United States found that players did not transmit the virus during play, as matches for a high school wrestling tournament turned into deadly, mass-media events. The Olympics will feature 33 sports at 42 venues across Japan.
The social nature of the Olympic Games further complicates the task. Places like the Athletes’ Village were designed for people to meet and socialize. Although long conversations and group meals are prohibited, it is not clear how these rules will be applied. Some athletes are teenagers, and the average age of an Olympian is typically in their 20s – groups where the spread of the virus has been more difficult to control.
“Although the textbooks are written, it is not clear to what extent they will be applied,” said Alex Cook, associate professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.
It’s not just the athletes. The games will require thousands of volunteers to help the events run smoothly, as well as local staff who will need to enter and exit the Olympic bubble on a regular basis to do things like prepare meals, clean the facilities and lead the debates. It’s unclear how those staff – who the Olympic Organizing Committee and Tokyo Metropolitan Government say will likely be more than 150,000 – will be treated, and in-game manuals don’t offer explicit instructions.
Even in normal times, disease outbreaks are common at the Olympics. During the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, around 200 athletes contracted norovirus. Two years earlier, the Rio Summer Olympics were held in the middle of Zika’s specter. More than 300 athletes contracted respiratory illnesses out of 10,568 participating in the London Olympics in 2012.
“It’s a good size task, even without the coronavirus,” said Jerne Shapiro, a field epidemiologist at the University of Florida who oversees the college’s COVID-19 control measures, including for athletics. .
There are strategies to reduce the risks. Those who fly to Japan will need to test negative for COVID-19 and undergo additional testing at least every four days. According to experts, increasing the frequency of testing is probably the best way to prevent an outbreak. Seiko Hashimoto, the head of the Japanese Olympics, said more frequent testing for athletes is being considered.
“It has become the go-to methodology for an event to happen on schedule despite the fact that we are in a pandemic,” said Amesh Adalja, principal investigator at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and infectious disease physician . “Unless you vaccinate everyone, a combination of serial and bubble testing is the best way.”
Still, several countries have already started vaccinating their athletes and others who will be heading to the games, and some national teams may have stricter infection control rules than Tokyo’s playbooks. The events will take place in large ventilated facilities, with few spectators, which will further reduce the danger.
But not everyone is convinced. “It would be ideal, of course, if all participants and staff were vaccinated,” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Science Institute.
“The bubble model has worked for the NBA,” Topol said. “It’s not clear if it can be replicated in this scenario.”
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