Editor’s Note: Jay Patel is a researcher at the Global Health Governance Programme, University of Edinburgh. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
The Olympic Games are grounded in a 125-year history of international unity. Every four years, they serve as a reminder of global togetherness and oneness. But since the start of the pandemic, togetherness and oneness have been public health threats.
Given Japan’s slow vaccine roll out and the rise of the Delta variant, many questioned whether it would be safe to hold the Games at all. But having already postponed the Games a year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) seemed determined to allow them to be held in some form. Now that the Olympics are just days away, we know what that form will be: A closed-door competition in the midst of Tokyo’s fourth Covid-19 state of emergency. Notably, first lady Jill Biden will be an exception to the no spectators rule, as her office announced Tuesday that she would be traveling to Tokyo for the Games.
But was it necessary for the IOC to ban spectators in order to hold the Games safely? I believe so, after considering three important public health factors:
First, the Delta variant is beginning to outcompete existing variants in Japan, and a recent study published in the journal Eurosurveillance predicts it will be the dominant viral variant by the time the Olympics begin. The lack of spectators greatly minimizes the potential for the variant to spread at the Olympics. Of course, there is still a risk that the athletes, coaches and staff may spread the virus, but with testing, masking and social distancing measures, it is possible to control that risk.
By banning spectators, we substantially reduce the risk that they might bring the virus back to their home country and perpetuate the spread of disease.
Second, a well-functioning test-trace-isolate system is the cornerstone of a robust pandemic response. Unfortunately, Japan has a limited testing capacity; its contact tracing – despite starting strongly with success at isolating infected individuals in the first months of the pandemic – has become less successful due in part to its reliance on digital technology, according to Nikkei Asia.
Given this reality, if spectators were allowed at the Games and an outbreak were to occur, Japan would face a crisis on a whole new level: it would likely be unable to test, track and isolate infected individuals without letting the virus proliferate, out of control.
Third, even with adequate protective measures in the venue, unregulated spaces in the vicinity would pose great challenges for keeping spectators Covid-free. The assembly of fans in surrounding public places could blend potential clusters of infection into mainstream community transmission, a risk Japan will wish to avoid at all costs, given that only 18% are fully vaccinated and the country has a large proportion of older adults.
Despite these shortcomings in Japan’s pandemic toolkit, epidemiological modeling from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation fortunately reflects favorably on the next three months for the country. The institute’s researchers project declines in infections, hospitalizations and deaths through the end of September, with projected deaths dropping to less than a quarter of their current level.
This is a promising forecast for Japan, and one that is not worth derailing with thousands of international Olympic visitors.
To see the possible ramifications of having spectators at the event, we need only look at the 2020 Euro match between Scotland and England. In the days and weeks that followed, nearly 1,300 Covid-19-positive patients in Scotland reported they had traveled to London for a Euro-related event. These Covid-19 infections arose despite more than half of the UK being fully vaccinated.
Concurrently, London’s Wembley Stadium announced it would operate at 75% capacity during last week’s European Championship, allowing 60,000 fans to watch the tournament’s semifinal and final as part of the UK government’s waning pandemic precautions, cautiously quenching public thirst for the repossession of civil liberties, even as a quickly spreading variant raises the possibility of new infections.
As the urgency of the pandemic fades in some parts of the world, in others, it has never been in greater need of attention. Allowing visitors to congregate in a country – like Japan — that has fallen behind on vaccinations and for which a large-scale outbreak would be disastrous would be unnecessarily reckless. For now, our connectedness and unity will remain in spirit as we watch our favorite athletes compete on screen.