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US Experts Flag Concerns for Tokyo Olympics, Call for WHO Help

Tokyo Olympics (Photo Credits: Reuters)

Tokyo Olympics (Photo Credits: Reuters)

The Summer Olympics are slated to bring together about 11,000 athletes and 4,000 support staff from more than 200 nations

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has not taken adequate steps to protect athletes, coaches, and support staff from Covid-19 during the impending July Olympic Games in Tokyo and the subsequent Paralympic Games, say experts from the University of Minnesota, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and the University of California, San Francisco.

Writing in a perspective article in the New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday, they called for an urgent meeting of World Health Organization (WHO) experts to address the crisis.

The Summer Olympics are slated to bring together about 11,000 athletes and 4,000 support staff from more than 200 nations in late July. One month later, the Paralympics will play host to 5,000 athletes, plus their support staff.

The experts including Annie Sparrow, Lisa M Brosseau, Robert J Harrison, and Michael T Osterholm, noted that when the IOC postponed the Tokyo Olympics in March 2020, Japan had 865 active Covid-19 cases.

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The country is now in a state of emergency, with 70,000 active cases, with less than 5 per cent of its population vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“We believe the IOC’s determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence," the experts write.

They said that the IOC Covid playbooks assert that athletes participate at their own risk but fail to delineate these risks and do not recognise the limitations of measures such as temperature screenings and face masks. Nor do they adequately address airborne transmission, asymptomatic spread, and the definition of close contacts.

The letter comes at a time of Covid crisis in Japan, with hospitals buckling under the strain of cases in Osaka, the country’s second-largest city, and the US State Department recommending that US citizens not travel to the country.

Pfizer and BioNTech have offered to donate vaccines for all Olympic athletes, but this does not ensure that athletes — especially those from countries without adequate vaccination efforts to begin with — will be vaccinated in time.

The experts recommend that the IOC’s playbooks classify sports as low, moderate, or high risk, based on what is known about Covid-19 spread, including airborne transmission. They also call for an immediate WHO response to assist the IOC.

“We recommend the WHO immediately convene an emergency committee that includes experts in occupational safety and health, building and ventilation engineering, and infectious-disease epidemiology as well as athlete representatives to consider these factors and advise on a risk-management approach for the Tokyo Olympics," they wrote.

A study conducted by two University of Tokyo professors showed that restricting movement of people during forthcoming Olympics and Paralympics to the same level as decrease in economic activity if the two events were to be called off could reduce spread of Covid-19. But the study noted that Games can go ahead provided restrictions are implemented.

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first published:May 27, 2021, 23:40 IST