Op-ed: Olympic organizers must mandate Covid vaccines for athletes and fans at Tokyo Games

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Arthur L. Caplan is the chief of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City and Lee H. Igel is a clinical professor at the NYU Tisch Institute for Global Sport.

Pfizer and BioNTech are donating doses of their Covid-19 vaccine to athletes and delegations en route to the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in July.

With so many people around the world still waiting for a shot and the pandemic not ending in more than a few regions, should Olympians skip the vaccine line? Yes – and they should get off to a flying start with a tough, mandatory program as soon as possible.

The offer to donate the doses came up during a recent conversation that Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla had with Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. That prompted that Japanese government to discuss the possibility in a meeting with the International Olympic Committee. The IOC then worked with Pfizer and BioNTech on a memorandum of understanding. It will have National Olympic Committees around the world – 206 in all – coordinating with their local governments to administer vaccinations to eligible athletes and delegates. Given the two-shot schedule, they should start now.

Japan plans to host a total of about 15,000 athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Several thousand more people who will travel as part of the delegations will join them, even though numbers are limited due to pandemic regulations. Some of those going to Tokyo will already be vaccinated. However, many will not have had access to a vaccine yet. Others will have refused to take it because they hesitate or do not believe in its safety.

How many thousands of doses will eventually be provided to the Olympic movement remains to be seen. Pfizer, BioNTech and the IOC have said these doses will be in addition to the quantities already being delivered to several countries. But many people wonder, if the drug companies can produce additional vaccines for Olympic allocation, shouldn’t those doses go to people who are at greater risk of serious illness or death if they contract Covid?

That is a fair question, but it misses an important reality: the Games are on track to take place as planned. This is despite Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures being under a government-imposed state of emergency due to the high rate of Covid infections. But Japan is too far along to cancel the Games, which had already been postponed once.

Costing more than $26 billion, the upcoming Tokyo Olympics is the most expensive Summer Games ever. True, a majority of the Japanese public – about 60%, according to the opinion polls of Yomiuri Shimbun, and up to 80%, according to polls quoted by the Associated Press — opposes holding the Games. Doctors and nurses protest, and workers at at least one hospital placed signs in windows calling for the Games to be cancelleddue to overcapacity. But the money invested, not public health concerns, are now driving events. Unless a shocking catastrophic event occurs, the Games will go on.

The Olympic festival, its athletes and delegates, and registered media and broadcast teams will pour into Japan in late July. Even if Tokyo reduces the infection rate to manageable levels in time for opening ceremonies, it would be irresponsible to let thousands of unvaccinated people in and move around. It risks a real strain on healthcare and public safety systems at the Olympic venues and across the city, in a country that one of the highest rates of vaccine aspiration and lowest rate of vaccine confidence in the world.

The IOC will not require athletes and delegates to receive a vaccine to participate in the Games. That is plainly wrong, given the danger of spreading new species around the world when participants return from the Games. Athletes, coaches, delegates, media and suppliers should be required to take the dual vaccine doses offered. It is necessary to keep as many people as safe as possible, and vaccines can help enormously with that.

Authentication by a doctor that a person has been vaccinated at least one month before the Games should be part of the protocol. That includes frequent testing just before departure, on arrival and during the Games, as well as maintaining a tight bubble at all Olympic venues, venues and accommodations.

Olympic athletes and their support staff can be seen as ‘essential workers’ in the sense that their participation in the Games can be seen by the world as a sign that good things are happening in a bleak time. As IOC President Thomas Bach said, they can “lead by example … and send a strong message that vaccination is not just about personal health, but also solidarity and concern for the well-being of others in their communities.”

Argument over the cancellation of the Games is over. They are going to happen. The organizers and athletes have about a month to ensure their safety, the safety of Tokyo and the safety of the world. Vaccination, testing and quarantine are the primary tools for aligning public health with the world’s desire for some relief from a deadly plague. Let’s hope the IOC, the local organizing committee and Japan get this right.

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