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Pfizer to Donate COVID-19 Vaccines for the Tokyo Olympic Games

Six glass vials labeled COVID-19 vaccine on a bright blue background.

hiroyuki nakai / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Pfizer and BioNTech will provide COVID-19 vaccines for athletes and participating delegations of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
  • Despite opposition from public health experts and the people of Japan, the organizers are firm about proceeding with the Olympics this summer.
  • Experts recommend making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory and enforcing strict public health measures for the games.

Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they will provide COVID-19 vaccines for the athletes and participating delegations of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, which is scheduled to run from July 23 to August 8, 2021.

Polls conducted since April show that 59% to 70% of people in Japan want the Olympics to be canceled or postponed again. The decision of the organizers and the Japanese government to move ahead with the rescheduled games has been heavily criticized.

Should the Olympic Games Proceed?

Despite overwhelming concerns about the safety of the Olympics, the organizers have repeatedly affirmed that there are no plans of canceling it again this year.

“I would only support an Olympic Games this summer if the health and safety of the athletes are actually prioritized,” Jaimie Meyer, MD, infectious diseases specialist at Yale Medicine and associate professor of medicine and public health at the Yale School of Medicine, tells Verywell. “Ideally this means that only the people who need to attend for competition—athletes, coaches, and participating delegations—are present and that all are fully vaccinated and regularly tested. De-densification of settings enables physical distancing and masking, which in turn reduces the change of spread.”

Jaimie Meyer, MD

I would only support an Olympic Games this summer if the health and safety of the athletes are actually prioritized.

— Jaimie Meyer, MD

The hopes for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are big. They're meant to symbolize hope during a time of global crisis, similar to how the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games were a means of bringing people together in the aftermath of World War I and the Spanish flu.

However, experts believe that the risks of having the games clearly outweigh the benefits. “In all, to me, as a public health official, the games cannot be held in a way that would resemble at all what they usually look like,” Ron Waldman, MD, MPH, professor of global health at the George Washington University Milken Institute of Public Health, tells Verywell.

If the games will look and feel too different to bring any comforting nostalgia, why have them at all? "I do understand that there is a lot of money at stake, and a lot of power and politics that is part of it," Waldman says. "But are these more important than what the epidemiology and the public health principles tell us is important to save lives and avoid suffering?”

Being a huge, global event, the Olympics has always posed the risk of spreading infectious disease. In the past, organizers have done everything that they could to prevent outbreaks, but the stakes are higher now since the world has yet to conquer the ongoing pandemic.

Researchers say that Japan's overwhelmed healthcare system and ineffective test, trace, and isolate scheme would be not enough to handle any outbreak that might befall the games.

“I do feel very, very badly for the athletes, for whom participating in the Olympics is the summit of their career and for most of whom this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Waldman says. “But I also feel sorry for many, many others who, during the pandemic, have lost family members, their livelihoods, their educational opportunities, and in far too many cases, their lives. The past two years have not in any way been business as usual and I really do not see much value, at this time, of moving forward with events that pretend that the pandemic is not happening.”

The Risks of Letting the Games Proceed

As an enormous event—one that generally fits the idea of a mass gathering—the Olympics has a high potential for spreading COVID-19. 

“The worst-case scenario is that the Olympic Games becomes a super spreader event that enables the global circulation of more contagious and deadly variants of SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19],” Meyer says. “The Games also pose a risk to other countries when the athletes return to their home countries.”

Back in March, the organizers announced that overseas spectators would be barred from the Olympics, but they have yet to decide whether local spectators will be able to attend.

Current numbers show that Japan has vaccinated only about 1% of its population. Additionally, the Japanese government recently extended the country's state of emergency to May 31 to contain the rising number of COVID-19 infections.

These figures present a sobering reality. “The entire country remains vulnerable to infection if it is ‘imported’ by Olympic athletes and delegates,” Meyer says.

Necessary Safety Measures to Implement

Experts say that if the Olympics go ahead as planned, strict safety measures and protocols must be followed by everyone involved. 

Mandatory Vaccination

Despite the donating of COVID vaccine doses, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympics Committee (IPC) have not made vaccination mandatory.

“Vaccination should be mandatory for all those attending a large event like the Olympics, and I am not sure why it is not—except for the fact that none of the vaccines are fully licensed yet,” Waldman says. “They are only approved for ‘emergency use,' which is why the U.S. government cannot make it mandatory even for the Armed Forces. But as a private organization, the IOC could, and should.”

“Local spectators should ideally be vaccinated and/or be tested—and show proof of negative status—prior to being allowed to attend events,” Waldman adds. “Masks in indoor venues should be mandatory, as should social distancing and the other usual precautions.”

That said, Waldman also points out that requiring—and supplying—vaccines for the Olympics could also invite debate about needs versus wants. “On the subject of vaccination, one might question the ethical validity of making vaccines available to athletes and delegations, but not making it readily available to countries like India, most African countries, and others who still do not have ready access,” Waldman says.

If the games go on, the bottom line for experts is that they should proceed with as many safety measures in place as possible. “Mandating vaccination of all athletes would go a long way to ensuring the health and safety of people present at the Olympic Games,” Meyer says. “Short of that, it will be important to make sure that vaccinations are widely available and accessible to all athletes, and encourage them to take it.”

Even if COVID-19 vaccinations were mandatory, experts say that other safety measures must be implemented as well.

Public Health Recommendations

Experts agree that fully vaccinated individuals must continue practicing all the safety measures set in place during the pandemic. “While there is still virus circulating worldwide, we still need other measures in place in addition to vaccinations, [such as] masking, physical distancing, cleaning and disinfecting, regular testing, [and] contact tracing,” Meyer says.

To strictly enforce safety protocols, the organizers have prepared a 60-page playbook that outlines rules that athletes and other participants must pledge to observe during the games. Rules in the playbook include:

  • Getting tested twice before leaving their respective home countries and once upon arrival in Japan
  • Getting tested daily during the duration of the Olympics
  • Eating in specified locations that are set by the organizers
  • Using dedicated vehicles and avoiding public transportation for a certain period

Athletes and fans alike are having a difficult time imagining what the Olympics will look like, and how they'll push through, amid the limitations.

“This would mean no Olympic Village, no parties, limited spectators, etc.,” Waldman says. “A ‘pod’ system should be developed, keeping national teams together, perhaps even keeping athletes competing in the same sport together, and limiting free mixing. Professional sports leagues in the U.S., especially the NBA, have had some, but not full, success with this kind of arrangement.”

Precautions also must be taken after the closing ceremonies to ensure that the risks of being at the games don't follow athletes and spectators as they travel back to their communities. “To reduce the risk of bringing the virus home and triggering additional waves of infection, at a minimum, they should be required to quarantine and test on return home,” Meyer says.

What This Means For You

Large gatherings, like sports games, carry a high risk of spreading COVID-19. The best and safest recommendation is to watch the event on TV or stream it online.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
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