With vaccine distribution on the horizon, how will the Summer Olympics be affected?

Japan 2020

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the world prepares for widespread rollout of vaccines, the Tokyo Olympics is working to overcome challenges that remain because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United Kingdom on Tuesday administered its first dose of a coronavirus vaccine made by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. The recipient was a 90-year-old woman.

Dr. Stephen Thomas, an infectious disease specialist in New York and a lead principal investigator in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trial, says while vaccines aren’t yet approved in the United States, many groups agree the first people to get them will be frontline health workers, followed by those in essential jobs.

He estimates if the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved soon, the general public can expect to get access to it in third or fourth quarter of 2021. That timeline could be sped up, though, as more vaccines are approved.

He said it could be a “sticky situation” if the Olympics requires vaccines from athletes, support staff or spectators if those people don’t meet the requirements to get a vaccine in their home countries.

“As we’ve discussed before, young, healthy athletes are not at the front of the line for vaccination,” Dr. Thomas said. “Then you’ve got to start having very, kind of, sensitive ethical questions about, well, how important is, you know, how important is the Olympics compared to the people living in assisted living scenarios, older people with medical problems. And that’s getting very dicey.”

Still, Thomas said when vaccines are available, he encourages people to get them.

“I get it, you know. We normally take a long period of time to develop and to license and to make available a drug or a vaccine, especially in the United States. And, so I would just say that, yeah, I understand that when something gets developed within a year, that you may have questions or you may have concerns,” he said. “The second thing that I would say is that, unfortunately, there is a lot of noise out there as it relates to information about vaccines in particular, so I would recommend that people search a number of sources for their information and they read from a number of different sources about this vaccine.”

Thomas has been a vaccine developer for more than 20 years and having been involved in the COVID-19 vaccine development, he said there have been shortcuts. However, he emphasizes those shortcuts are not related to safety.

“They relate to taking financial risk. They relate to doing regulatory or administrative actions in parallel versus sequentially,” Dr. Thomas said. “There has been, you know, nothing different about how these trials are designed from a safety perspective.”

What will safety precautions look like?

Undoubtedly, the experience of the Games will be much different from years’ past, when athletes had a chance to explore the host city. Organizers have said athletes will likely be encouraged to leave Japan a day or so after their competition, and discouraged from sightseeing or holding parties in the Olympic Village.

The Opening Ceremonies will also have restrictions, the Associated Press reports. John Coates, the IOC member in charge of overseeing Tokyo preparations, said it will only involve athletes and six or fewer team officials from each of the 206 participating countries.

The International Olympic Committee has been testing numerous safety precautions, including at a friendly gymnastics meet in Japan earlier in November that involved athletes from multiple countries and some fans. Those included quarantine for athletes, coronavirus testing, mask-wearing and sterilization mists for those entering venues.

Test events test the waters

After that November meet, organizers for the Summer Olympics announced they planned to hold a series of 18 test events, starting in March, according to the Associated Press. Those events include swimming, gymnastics, diving and volleyball, and will welcome an unknown amount of fans from Japan to spectate.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports test events for the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Beijing have been canceled. The International Ski Federation canceled a number of events in China meant to test some of the venues for the 2022 Games. Organizers said travel restrictions and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for those entering China led to them canceling the events.

Cost of postponing the Games

Last week, multiple news outlets in Japan reported it cost about $3 billion to postpone the Tokyo Olympics to 2021. That’s on top of the official cost of $12.6 billion. Each outlet cited similar numbers and unidentified sources close to the Games. However, the Associated Press reported Olympics organizers have not confirmed that number.

“We are in the process of assessing the additional costs associated with the postponement of the games due to COVID-19 and therefore are not able to comment on any details at this time,” Tokyo organizers said in a statement Nov. 30.

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