Will the Tokyo Olympics be a superspreading event?

Back in May, Sarah Braner wrote that Japan was seeing a COVID-19 spike in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to start in late July. The situation has remained worrying since then.

True, cases have dropped significantly since the May outbreak—the nation is now seeing around 1,500 cases a day, compared to a peak of 6,500 on May 14. But many Japanese residents are concerned that the Olympic games could push numbers back up.

Despite a recent push towards vaccinations, Japan’s numbers remain low: just over 20% of the population has received at least one dose, as of June 24. On social media, Japanese residents have reported issues with getting their shots due to a voucher system implemented earlier this spring. A resident must receive a vaccine voucher from the government in order to get their shot; without that bureaucratic step, they may be turned away from a vaccine clinic, even if doses are available.

Meanwhile, rules around the Olympics have focused on protecting the athletes themselves. Over 80% of the athletes have been vaccinated and Japan will prioritize getting shots to Olympics staffers, journalists, and volunteers, according to the New York Times. Athletes will also be tested regularly.

The Olympics are not allowing international spectators, but officials announced this week that Japanese crowds will be permitted—up to 50% of a venue’s capacity. While masks will be required and other guidelines will be in place, the rules for attendees are not nearly so strict as those for athletes.

It only takes one unvaccinated person to set off a superspreading event. And with variants like Delta and Gamma spreading rapidly around the world, such events are more likely and more dangerous. In order to truly make the Olympics safe, Japan should ensure the coronavirus is locked out of Olympic events—not just for athletes, but for workers and spectators as well.

More international reporting

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  • Unreliable population numbers hinder vaccination rate analysis
    An excellent article in the Financial Times, published this past Monday, illuminates one major challenge of estimating a vaccine campaign’s success: population data are not always reliable. Health reporter Oliver Barnes and data reporter John Burn-Murdoch explain that, in several countries and smaller regions, inaccurate counts of how many people live in the region have led to vaccination rate estimates that make the area’s vaccine campaign look more successful—or less successful—than it really is.
  • The case for a moratorium on booster shots
    This week, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for wealthy nations to stop giving out booster shots in a push towards global vaccine equity. These nations should stall any booster shots until at least September, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference on Wednesday.
  • The booster shot conversation: What you should know
    Recently, a lot of U.S. COVID-19 news has centered around booster shots—additional vaccine doses to boost patients’ immunity against the coronavirus. Questions abound: do we need these shots, when might we need them, how do they impact vaccination campaigns?
  • The Delta variant is taking over the world
    The Delta variant is now dominant in the U.S., but our high vaccination rates still put us in a much better position than the rest of the world—which is facing the super-contagious variant largely unprotected.

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