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How will the Tokyo Games influence the next Olympics of the COVID-19 era?

The Tokyo Games have provided Beijing a preview of hosting an Olympics during a pandemic, which should help the city navigate the challenges of COVID-19 when it welcomes athletes next year.

Experts say Winter Olympics organizers will be considering the transmission risks involved in winter sports, tools to track and monitor infections, as well as vaccination rates among visitors and local residents as they prepare for the second Olympics since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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“We have learned so many lessons out of this Tokyo Olympics,” said Kenji Shibuya, a prominent public health expert who has been critical of decisions made by organizers of the first Olympics in the COVID-19 era.

A former director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, Shibuya says the Tokyo Olympics have provided data on things like how COVID-19 can spread within Olympic housing facilities — all of which Beijing can review and learn from.

“That kind of assessment — what went wrong, what was successful — will be very important,” said Shibuya.

That information should be shared with Beijing and the rest of the world in a transparent manner, he said. 

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“I think it’s important to look forward and share the information across the board and learn lessons and move on,” he said in a recent CBC News interview.

Next Games just months away

Beijing’s Winter Games are less than six months away, a consequence of delaying the Tokyo Olympics by a year

Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics just six months after the end of the Olympics in Tokyo. The back-to-back timing of the Games is because the Tokyo Games was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

One advantage Beijing has over Tokyo is that there is time for more athletes to be vaccinated ahead of the Olympics. 

Increased vaccination coverage among athletes makes things “much easier,” though that is complicated by varying levels of access to vaccines among nations, said Shibuya.

Jörg Fritz, an assistant professor in McGill University’s department of microbiology and immunology, said it would be “desirable” if everyone participating — athletes, event staff and any spectators — was vaccinated. 

Vaccinations key, maybe not mandatory

Fritz said monitoring the vaccine status of the participants was key to limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

“We have seen from large-scale events that have been monitored in the U.K.  — concerts with many thousands [of] spectators where only fully vaccinated people are allowed — that spread is very, very low,” Fritz said in an email. He pointed to a spike in COVID-19 infections blamed on the Euro soccer tournament as an example of what can happen when vaccination status is not factored into event planning. 

An athlete from the Philippines is seen receiving a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in Manila in May, two months before the start of the Tokyo Games. Athletes were not required to be vaccinated in order to compete at the Olympics. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

Vaccination wasn’t a requirement for athletes at the Tokyo Games. 

Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the U.S.-based John Hopkins Center for Health Security and a former Olympian, does not expect that to change in Beijing.

“I don’t know if a requirement will be put in place,” Sell told CBC News via email. “There are a lot of things to balance there.”

In response to a query about the planned vaccination protocol in Beijing, the International Olympic Committee’s media relations team told CBC News in an email that “the Playbooks for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 have not yet been published.”

Nearly all the Chinese athletes who competed in Tokyo were vaccinated, according to the Chinese Olympic Committee.

WATCH \ Beijing Games just months away, with pandemic and human rights hot topics:

Athletes and officials looking ahead to the Beijing 2022 Olympics are trying to focus on sports, but the next Games are already surrounded by concerns about COVID-19 and controversy over accusations against the Chinese government of human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs. 1:58

Earlier this year, the International Olympic Committee reached an arrangement with the Chinese Olympic Committee to make Chinese-made vaccines available to incoming athletes.

Shibuya said China has proven its ability to tamp down COVID outbreaks through testing, lockdowns and quarantines. He think that puts Beijing in a good position to handle such challenges at the Olympics.

“They are very good at suppressing transmission, so I think they are in a much better position compared to Japan, in terms of holding an Olympics,” he said.

What about fans?

The Tokyo Games have been notable for many reasons — a lack of fans in the stands being just one of them.

Shibuya says it would have been possible for Tokyo to have welcomed fans to its own Games if local coronavirus transmission rates had been lower.

“If Japan could have suppressed the local transmission with vaccination and massive testing, I think this Olympics could have had spectators,” he said. Vaccine passports and testing are two tools that could have been used, he said.

WATCH | Empty stands at the Tokyo Olympics

There are nearly no spectators in the stands at the Olympic Games due to a state of emergency, which was declared in Tokyo, making these games especially unusual for athletes. 2:01

“It’s not an issue about whether or not we should have spectators, it’s about how to minimize the risk with science,” he said.

Fritz said “every effort should be made” to allow fully vaccinated spectators to watch events at the next Games, with plans in place to monitor any infections that follow.

Sell said allowing fans from abroad to come to Beijing “will require a better handle on COVID and vaccination.”

The influence of delta

At present, many parts of the world are dealing with climbing COVID-19 case counts linked to the highly contagious delta variant.

That is a concern for organizers in Beijing, as the variant has been detected in nearly half the regions of China, according to a New York Times report

A worker urges pedestrians to keep walking as part of COVID-19 precautions during the Tokyo Olympics. (David Goldman/The Associated Press)

“The delta variant is certainly a challenge and there is increasing danger that in a few months we might have a newer, even more vicious variant spreading,” said Fritz. He said making vaccines mandatory for athletes and others would make sense, given the rate of COVID-19 transmission is much higher among the unvaccinated.

Fritz also said it is unclear how well some of the vaccines used in China protect people against the delta variant.

“There is little data available; what we know for alpha [is that] the two approved vaccines in China have lower protective effects than the ones approved in Canada,” said Fritz. “This aspect certainly will come into play.”

‘Basic strategies’ to hold

Shibuya said time-tested strategies to curb infection will remain in place, whether Beijing is dealing with the delta or another variant.

“The contagiousness is different and the possibility of airborne transmission would be higher for the delta,” he said. “But basic ventilation, mask-wearing, and proper distancing, together with massive testing and vaccination — I think the basic strategies remain the same.”

People are seen wearing face masks inside a Beijing subway station, in a bid to protect themselves from COVID-19 exposure. (Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press)

Shibuya said he expects a “more science-based” risk assessment used in Beijing that takes into account the nature of the sporting events in question.

At the Tokyo Olympics, for example, the risk of spreading infection during an outdoor event like sailing is vastly different from the risks involved in an indoor event like gymnastics,” Shibuya said.

Have questions about this story? We’re answering as many as we can in the comments.

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