Beijing Olympics' top doctor defends stricter COVID testing as necessary protection
Dr. Brian McCloskey says increased positive cases shows protocols are working
The chair of the Beijing 2022 medical expert panel is defending the strict protocols in place for participants attending the Olympics in China as necessary to reduce the risk of spread during the Games.
Dr. Brian McCloskey told CBC Sports on Friday that the protocols have detected more positive cases in arrivals to Beijing than at a similar point for the Tokyo Olympics in July, something he said is expected and what they are designed to do.
"It's picking up people who might be infectious and might get into the [Athletes] Village and cause a problem," he said. "And now, we're having to work out how we deal with those cases and get as many people as possible into the Games, and as many people as we can safely."
The Olympics are scheduled to officially open on Feb. 4.
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The Beijing Olympic Committee has set a higher threshold for sensitivity on COVID-19 testing compared to the number being used by Canadian health standards. The cycle threshold (Ct) value being used in China to detect an infection is 40, compared to 35 in many places in Canada. The higher the Ct value, the less infectious is a person with COVID-19.
Dr. McCloskey said the threshold number used for these Games was made in partnership between the IOC and Beijing Olympic Committee based on conversations over many months and building on what officials learned in Tokyo.
"There are obviously differences in the way every country handles coronavirus. So we've been evolving it. Even in the last week, we've been exchanging scientific papers with our colleagues in China to make sure we understand the evidence behind how the testing gets done," McCloskey said.
"We are using a standard PCR test, which is an international standard the World Health Organization approved. Every laboratory sets its own standards in terms of Ct values, but these are consistent across the world."
Any athlete or Games participant who has tested positive within the last 30 days is in a precarious situation with this higher threshold, however. Participants are required to provide five negative PCR tests before they're allowed to fly to China.
If a person does test positive on arrival, they will be isolated until they can produce two negative test results.
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If there is ambiguity in the results — for instance, two negatives and then a positive — a 20-person panel of medical experts will make an evaluation of infectiousness based on the CT values, vaccination history and other factors.
The panel includes representation from the China Centre for Disease Control, the Beijing CDC, and five international representatives of the IOC, the International Paralympic Committee and Winter International Federations.
"We try to make that very fine judgment based on the best science we can find. But none of this science is absolutely clear, because we don't know that much about coronavirus yet," Dr. McCloskey said.
He said while the panel can make a recommendation, the ultimate decision will be made by Chinese authorities.
McCloskey said Chinese athletes and any others entering the Olympic closed-loop system are subject to the same testing protocols.
"But it's also important to remember the athletes who are living in China probably have one of the lowest rates of coronavirus around them than anybody in the world," Dr. McCloskey said.
"So they're much much much less likely to test positive than somebody who's travelling from the UK or Canada for example, where Omicron has been everywhere for a few weeks."
China, with a population of 1.4 billion, had 136,577 cases of COVID-19 as of Jan. 20, according to the World Health Organization. Canada, with 38 million people, has nearly 3 million active cases.
Dr. McCloskey said the lessening of protocols in some areas around the world — such as reducing isolation periods to five days — hasn't influenced the situation in Beijing.
"Our tolerance for risk is probably a bit lower than it would be for many national governments because national governments are trying to balance keeping the economy going and getting the workforce in etc., against the risk of infection," he said. "We're trying to manage the risk of infection and make sure it doesn't get in and spread around the village."