Even with high vaccination rates among athletes, Tokyo Olympics are a 'gamble,' experts say

·5 min read

TOKYO – For more than two weeks, the Olympic Games visitors won’t just have higher COVID-19 vaccination rates than their Japanese hosts. They’ll make the event one of the most concentrated locations of vaccinated people on the planet.

As the Tokyo Games open on Friday, organizers expect an overwhelming majority of athletes, sport officials and media traveling to Japan to be vaccinated.

Even on the low end of estimates, at least 70% of the largest groups of participants is estimated to be fully vaccinated. Organizers hope that and other measures put in place – including mask use, distancing, testing and contact tracing – will prevent the spread of the coronavirus during the Games.

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“Vaccination is a very powerful measure to prevent both occurrence and spread of COVID,” Kentaro Iwata, a professor of infectious diseases at Kobe University in Japan, wrote in an email. “I am very happy to hear that many got vaccinated before coming to Japan.”

Simone Biles and the U.S. gymnastics team arrive for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games at Narita International Airport.
Simone Biles and the U.S. gymnastics team arrive for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games at Narita International Airport.

Public health experts expect that to help provide some protection to the Japanese people, who polling shows are largely opposed to hosting the Olympics this summer.

Japan has fully vaccinated 20% of its population, while Israel leads the world with 60% fully vaccinated.

Tokyo organizers and the International Olympic Committee offered vaccination estimates from several of the largest contingents arriving to Japan, saying:

  • 85% of national Olympic committee delegation members, a group of more than 25,000 people which includes athletes, coaches and team officials

  • more than 80% of broadcasters, including rights holders, which at nearly 12,000 people make up the next largest group

  • 70-80% of non-rights-holding media, who total roughly 4,600 arriving from overseas

  • nearly 100% of IOC members and staff will arrive vaccinated or immune

Separately, USA TODAY Sports surveyed the largest national Olympic committees and received responses back from 10 countries that make up more than 3,400 of the 11,000 athletes slated to compete in Tokyo. That included the United States, with the largest team of 613 athletes, as well as Germany, Australia, Britain and Canada.

Most said more than 90% of their delegations would arrive vaccinated. Italy was the only country to say 100% of its delegation is vaccinated, while Poland represented the low end of the surveyed countries with more than 70% vaccinated.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee could not provide an estimate for the entire team because it did not require or track athletes’ vaccination status. Anecdotally, it is receiving information from the national governing bodies and pointed to USA Swimming, with around 90% vaccinated, as an example.

"We made it clear throughout that we would respect the order of community recipients as recommended by medical professionals,” USOPC spokesman Jon Mason said. “At the same time, we strongly encouraged Team USA athletes to get the vaccine, offered education seminars and access to medical staff for questions, and offered to help them locate shots if needed. We were fortunate to have the vaccine so readily available and well before the Trials and Games.”

The IOC urged but didn’t require participants to be vaccinated, due in part to uneven vaccine access globally.

In May, it signed an agreement with Pfizer and BioNTech to make doses available to national Olympic and Paralympic committees. Five of the 10 national Olympic committees that USA TODAY Sports surveyed said they received Pfizer doses under that agreement. They are taking more than 1,300 athletes to Tokyo, collectively.

Public health experts warned that, while helpful, the high vaccination rate is not guaranteed to stop the spread of coronavirus. Vaccines have been shown to prevent infection and serious illness, but breakthrough cases occur and the delta variant is more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain.

“Probably most of the cases that will be detected during the Olympics will be delta,” said Amir Attaran, an immunologist and professor of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa. “That’s simply a reflection that delta is on the way to becoming the globally dominant strain right now.”

Olympic organizers reported the first positive case of COVID-19 in the Olympic Village on Saturday. Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, said he did not have any information about whether the person had been vaccinated. Three more Olympic athletes tested positive Sunday. Two of them are listed as residents of the Olympic Village.

On Monday, Kara Eaker, an alternate on the women's gymnastics team, tested positive after a training camp in Inzai. Eaker said after the Olympic Trials last month that she had been vaccinated.

COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective but they’re not 100% effective. That means a small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19 if exposed to the virus that causes it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However vaccinated people who have breakthrough infections are much less likely to get severely sick or die.

The cases in Japan illustrate the challenge officials face in trying to deliver a "safe and secure" Tokyo Games, as IOC president Thomas Bach has promised since the Olympics were delayed a year.

While Olympic organizers are attempting to isolate as much as possible the Games visitors – barring use of public transit for the first 14 days in country, for instance – Japanese people will make up much of the workforce and volunteers.

Tokyo’s organizing committee said Japanese press, volunteers and staff have been offered the vaccine.

They might be most at risk as tens of thousands of international visitors, albeit mostly vaccinated, arrive to Tokyo. As of Tuesday, 40 of the 67 positive COVID-19 cases related to Tokyo 2020 involve Japanese residents.

“They will have higher vaccination rates than others, but they also bring additional risk,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown professor and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National & Global Health Law. “Because any time you have tens of thousands… of people crossing borders and coming into a single country, you don’t know whether they’ve been vaccinated, with what vaccine?

“It’s a gamble, and you’re gambling with people’s health and their lives and particularly young people who have so much to live for.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tokyo Olympics a gamble during COVID-19 pandemic, experts say

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