The 2021 Tokyo Olympics begin on July 23. Will Japan be ready?

Japan’s new COVID-19 cases per million, as of May 8. Chart via Our World in Data.

They’re definitely not ready now. The Japanese government just announced it would extend an already-standing state of emergency through May 31 following a large spike in COVID-19 cases. After “Golden Week,” a sequence of Japanese Holidays lasting from late April to early May, Tokyo reported 907 new cases for the week. (New York City reported 985 cases just on May 7, for comparison.) A variant called N501Y has caused recent surges in cases, like in Osaka where hospitals struggled to treat the influx. N501Y is more infectious, and it has been correlated with more serious cases.

This surge comes as Japan struggles to roll out vaccinations. According to Our World in Data, as of May 6, 2.44% of the country’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. (In the United States, around 57% of the population has received at least one dose as of May 8.) So far, Japan has only approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use, though it may approve the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines by May 20. Pfizer has also announced that the company will donate vaccines to athletes and staff, and the International Olympic Committee has said, “It is expected that a significant proportion of Games participants will have been vaccinated before arriving in Japan.”

An online campaign called Stop Tokyo Olympics has gained more than 200,000 signatures to an online petition, per Reuters. A Japanese poll in January showed that 80% of respondents said the games should be postponed or cancelled, and this trend has held true since.

Japan has been extremely successful in controlling the pandemic so far, but that has also led to a lack in urgency in vaccinating the population, and again, surges have happened. The Olympics are very difficult to do in an NBA-like bubble. The scale of the Olympics is much larger, and with case counts across the world as high as they are, it’s hard to imagine that someone won’t come down with COVID-19 during the games. As the New York Times points out, the chances of a COVID-19 free Olympics are slim—instead, the priority will be controlling cases as they come up.

Officials have repeatedly insisted that the games will go on as planned, and there is no sign that they will be cancelled or postponed. Will this current state of emergency crush the curve enough? We won’t know until July.

More international data

  • WHO ends the global health emergency for COVID-19
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  • China’s not the only country with unreliable COVID-19 data
    China is currently facing a massive COVID-19 surge, after ending many of its stringent “zero COVID” policies in December. But it’s not the only country that has problems with data accuracy right now.
  • Data implications of China ending its zero-COVID policies
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  • How testing international travelers helps the CDC keep tabs on new variants
    Last month, the CDC started publishing data from a surveillance program focused on international travelers coming into the U.S. I talked to bioinformatics experts involved with the program to learn more about how it works.
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has COVID-19 impacts
    When Russian troops began attacking Ukraine, the country was just recovering from its worst COVID-19 surge of the pandemic. To state the terrifying obvious: war makes it much harder to control a pandemic.

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