Will the Olympics set the world back in its fight against COVID-19? Experts weigh in

Click to play video: 'Tokyo residents express concerns as city sees 2nd straight day of record COVID-19 cases'
Tokyo residents express concerns as city sees 2nd straight day of record COVID-19 cases
WATCH: Tokyo residents express concerns as city sees 2nd straight day of record COVID-19 cases – Jul 28, 2021

The chance the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will set the world back in its fight against COVID-19 is low — but the risk is there, experts say.

The Games, which began last Friday and end on Aug. 8, take place as the host city has been seeing a rise in infections for weeks.

Tokyo reported its highest number of new daily cases on Wednesday with 3,177, exceeding the previous record of 2,848 set on Tuesday. At the same time, Japan’s population is 26.47 per cent fully vaccinated, while the world is 14.10 per cent fully vaccinated, Johns Hopkins University indicates.

Despite this, the chance the Olympics will worsen COVID-19 in the world is “low,” said Dr. Barry Pakes, a professor with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

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To get worse, there would have to be a high transmission of the virus, it would have to evade vaccines and testing, and it would have to spread far enough into the world to do damage.

“All of those things did happen when it came to the original Wuhan strain of COVID,” he said.

“That event in of itself was unlikely to happen, but unlikely things do happen. So when I say it’s relatively low risk, I mean that the chances of a new variant developing and that getting transmitted, given everything that is going on, is pretty low, but the impact (of a new variant spreading) is high enough that as a public health person, I would say it’s not worth taking that risk.”

Click to play video: 'Tokyo’s spike in COVID-19 cases ‘not a problem’ for Olympics: Japan PM'
Tokyo’s spike in COVID-19 cases ‘not a problem’ for Olympics: Japan PM

To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Olympic officials introduced restrictions like barring fans, mandating masks and subjecting participants to daily testing. Around 11,500 athletes are expected to compete, while roughly 79,000 journalists, officials and staff are also expected to be in attendance.

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So far, 160 people involved with the Olympics have tested positive for COVID-19. Officials have done 274,935 screening tests since July 1, and have a positivity rate of 0.02 per cent, while 38,484 airport tests for Games participants since July 1 have resulted in a 0.08 per cent positivity rate.

Even though the numbers are low, there could’ve been even less risk if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) mandated vaccination among participants, said Dr. Nitin Mohan, an assistant professor in the global health systems program at Western University.

“If you look at the daily testing and the protocols in place for the Olympics, what the Olympics may show is what can be done if strict protocols are in place in a world where vaccinations are not mandated,” he said.

“What we’re finding with all these measures in place is you’ll still have a rise in case counts, albeit relatively low.”

In a June news release, the IOC said it expects more than 80 per cent of Olympic and Paralympic Village residents to be vaccinated. The committee also mentioned the residents would not have close contact with the general Japanese population.

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In response to questions from Global News, the IOC pointed to a July 20 news conference with Dr. Brian McCloskey, chair of the independent expert panel on COVID-19 countermeasures for the Games.

He said organizers did not want to create a situation in which only athletes from countries with adequate vaccine supply could compete, and athletes without vaccination couldn’t.

“So we decided not to make vaccination a requirement, but as it happens, we now know that vaccination has been quite successful across the village and that essentially is a bonus layer of protection on top of what we’ve done,” he said.

“And across all of those, we believe there’s a very significant reduction in the risk of coronavirus arriving here or spreading within the village and a very, very significant reduction in any risk of spreading beyond the village.”

Click to play video: 'Concern for Canadian athletes in Tokyo as Olympic Games officially begins'
Concern for Canadian athletes in Tokyo as Olympic Games officially begins

For Olympian Angela Schneider, who won silver in coxed four rowing at the 1984 Summer Olympics, being able to mingle with participants was an “important part of my Olympic experience.”

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But, this year’s attendees must put all social temptations aside to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, she said.

“At this time, in this situation, showing respect for the host, for the Japanese people and for the incredible price they continue to pay right now … has to override everything else … because it could mean people’s lives,” said Schneider, who is the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University.

Click to play video: 'Tokyo Olympics chief won’t rule out last-minute cancellation of Games'
Tokyo Olympics chief won’t rule out last-minute cancellation of Games

If the Games do lead to a COVID-19 outbreak, it could damage the image of Japan and the IOC, said Phillip Lipscy, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy’s Centre for the Study of Global Japan at the University of Toronto.

“I think the Japanese government had hoped the Olympics could mark a turning point in the global pandemic, that if not celebrating the end of the pandemic, they could at least symbolize some return to normalcy by putting on the Olympics,” he said.

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“But if the Olympics dramatically ends up increasing the number of COVID cases in Tokyo and Japan more broadly, then that message would be turned on its head that essentially the Games are actually making the pandemic worse, and that’s certainly not the message that the IOC or the Japanese government wants to convey to the world.”

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