With less than two months until the Tokyo Olympics begin, a group of US public health experts are among the latest to warn that pushing forward with the rescheduled 2020 Games puts athletes – and the public – at risk amid the pandemic.
The experts, including Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy among other scientists, call for “urgent action” to asstess the Covid-19 risks associated with the Games and the additional measures that could be put in place to mitigate those risks.
The researchers wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday that they recommend the World Health Organization “immediately convene an emergency committee” to advise on a risk-management approach for the Tokyo Olympics.
The current plans to proceed with the Olympic Games are “not informed by the best scientific evidence,” the researchers wrote, calling for changes.
“I’d give them a chance right now. I think that we all want the good news of the Olympics,” Osterholm told CNN’s John Berman on Wednesday morning when asked if he would cancel the Games.
“I think no one at this point wouldn’t want to have that torch lit and to see us come back together, but I think that the approach they’re taking right now is virtually a dangerous one if they don’t change many of the recommendations they have and for how they’re going to protect athletes and their support team members,” Osterholm said. “I think this is a real challenge.”
The growing concern comes about a week after Japanese doctors called for the Games to be canceled amid a worsening outbreak in the country.
The US State Department on Monday urged citizens to avoid all travel to Japan, but officials insist it will not complicate preparations for the Tokyo Olympics, now just weeks away. And on Wednesday local time, the Asahi Shimbun, a leading newspaper in Japan that is sponsoring the Olympic Games in July, published an editorial calling for the event to be canceled.
‘Not informed by the best scientific evidence’
Due to the pandemic, the International Olympic Committee postponed the Tokyo Olympics last year and rescheduled the event for this summer – starting on July 23.
In preparation for the Games, the IOC included various Covid-19 countermeasures in official playbooks, which involve daily Covid-19 testing, only traveling in dedicated vehicles and designating specific locations for eating, among other measures.
“The Playbooks have been developed based on science, benefiting from learnings gathered during the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a joint statement made in April by the IOC, International Paralympic Committe, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Government of Japan.
The statement added that the playbooks implement mask-wearing, personal hygiene, physical distancing and draw from hundreds of other sporting events that have taken place during the pandemic, “which have been held safely, with minimal risk to participants and the local population.”
In the New England Journal of Medicine, Osterholm and his co-authors wrote that the playbooks could include more frequent Covid-19 testing and they emphasized that plans for temperature checks could miss pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic cases.
“In the absence of regular testing, participants may become infected during the Olympics and pose a risk when they return home to more than 200 countries,” they wrote.
“We believe the IOC’s determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence,” the researchers wrote. “The playbooks maintain that athletes participate at their own risk, while failing both to distinguish the various levels of risk faced by athletes and to recognize the limitations of measures such as temperature screenings and face coverings.”
The researchers noted that the IOC’s playbooks should classify various sporting events as low, moderate or high risk depending on the activity. For instance, an outdoor sport where competitors are naturally spaced out, such as archery or equestrian, could be considered low risk while indoor contact sports, such as boxing or wrestling, could be considered high risk.
Vaccine maker donates Covid-19 shots
As another safety measure, the IOC announced in early May that the companies Pfizer and BioNTech offered to provide additional doses of their coronavirus vaccine to teams heading to the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer.
“This donation of the vaccine is another tool in our toolbox of measures to help make the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 safe and secure for all participants, and to show solidarity with our gracious Japanese hosts,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a news release in early May.
“We are inviting the athletes and participating delegations of the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games to lead by example and accept the vaccine where and when possible,” he added in part.
In Japan, where the Olympic Games will be held, less than 5% of the population is vaccinated, the researchers wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. They added that not all athletes participating in the Olympics may be able to get vaccinated.
“Pfizer and BioNTech have offered to donate vaccines for all Olympic athletes, but this offer does not ensure that all athletes will receive vaccines before the Olympics, since vaccine authorization and availability are lacking in more than 100 countries,” the researchers wrote. “Although several countries have vaccinated their athletes, adolescents between 15 and 17 years of age cannot be vaccinated in most countries, and children younger than 15 can be vaccinated in even fewer countries.”
They also noted in the paper that coronavirus variants, which may be more transmissible than the original strain, are circulating widely – posing risks.
Tokyo doctors want Games canceled
A major Japanese doctors’ group has called for the Tokyo Olympics to be canceled over fears that the influx of people will exacerbate an already worsening outbreak in the country. The Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association warned earlier this month that the country’s health care system could not cope with the medical needs of thousands of athletes, coaches and press on top of the existing surge in Covid-19 cases.
The group wrote about its concerns in a letter sent to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Minister for the Games Tamayo Marukawa, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and Japanese Olympic Committee Chairman Seiko Hashimoto.
The Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association includes about 6,000 doctors in Tokyo.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
“We strongly request that the authorities convince the IOC (International Olympic Committee) that holding the Olympics is difficult and obtain its decision to cancel the Games,” doctors wrote in the letter, dated May 14. The letter was sent just days after the national doctor’s union in Japan also urged the government to cancel the Games.
“The most important priority now is to fight against COVID-19 and to secure people’s lives and livelihoods,” the letter said. “The virus is spreading with the movement of people. Japan will bear a big responsibility if the hosting of the Olympic and Paralympic Games contributes to the spread of COVID-19 and increases the number of sufferers and deaths.”
CNN’s Emiko Jozuka in Hong Kong, Selina Wang in Tokyo and Mai Nishiyama contributed to this report.