COVID-19 risk at the Tokyo Olympics

Nestled amid a global pandemic, athletes from 206 countries are making their way to Japan to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.  Not the first Games to be affected by widespread health concerns: although the novel Zika virus was a concern during the 2016 Rio Olympics, the  World Health Organization (WHO) announced at the time that there was not enough “public health justification for postponing or canceling the games.” In contrast, even after a year delay to the Games, there are still significant global concerns and potential ramifications for the Olympics’ start next week.


COVID-19 Protocols

Over a series of declarations in recent months due to COVID-19 concerns, government officials have gone from restricting the event to domestic spectators to eliminating spectators at the Games altogether. The most recent state of emergency, the fourth since the start of the pandemic, will run through August 22, 2021, and affect public gatherings and local establishments, even beyond the restrictions surrounding Olympic events.

Naturally, the COVID-19 health and safety protocols surrounding participants in the Games remain stringent:

  • Two negative COVID-19 tests within 96 hours prior to travel (one within 72 hours prior).
  • Required negative COVID-19 test upon arrival in Japan, followed by three-day quarantine.
  • Daily required saliva antigen tests for the duration of stay.
  • Required smartphone apps for contact tracing and daily health checks.
  • Participants are required to wear face masks at all times
  • No public transportation permitted.
  • Transport only permitted to a pre-determined location approved by Olympic authorities.
The Australian Women’s Softball Team were some of the first athletes to arrive in Tokyo for the Olympics.

Vaccination Requirements

Though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines available to all participating Olympic athletes and their travel parties free of charge, there is no requirement for vaccination for participation at the Games. However, even without mandated vaccinations, more than 80% of Olympic Village residents will be vaccinated by the opening ceremony of the Games, which the Committee hopes to be a positive among continued public safety concerns.

Regardless, vaccinations are not a silver bullet against COVID-19, particularly against the Delta variant, which resulted in two positive tests within the fully vaccinated Ugandan delegation, although the Serbian athlete that tested positive was confirmed to have the novel strain. Moreover, the lack of guaranteed protection raises concerns for the Japanese public, as less than 20% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Possible Super Spreader Event

Organizers expect to contain the potential spread of the virus amongst Games participants and volunteers through their mandated testing protocols and contact tracing methods. With almost 56,000 tests conducted daily in Japan already, the Olympic protocols add anywhere from 20,000-80,000 tests each day for the duration of delegations’ stays. Although using a separate testing facility in the Olympic Village, the private contracts required to test samples within the 3- to 12-hour expected timeframe may place a strain on testing protocols for the host country itself. The strain on the healthcare system may extend further to hospitals in the region if they could manage the potential overflow of patients should COVID-19 cases surge during, or even because of, the Games.

An influx of 15,000 foreign delegations of athletes and officials, combined with current COVID-19 rates in Japan, raises concerns about the Tokyo Games as a “super spreader” event. Even with restrictions in place to decrease the risk of transmission in the region, the new variants are causing alarm within Japan’s vulnerable population and for those attending the games, making some question whether the event is worth the risk.

VIGILINT’s Founder and Chief Medical Officer stated: “The Tokyo Olympics clearly demonstrates the complex challenges associated with the production of large-scale spectator events in the context of an ongoing global pandemic. Returning to large-scale events with thousands in attendance requires the majority of individuals to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and an effective screening and access control program.”