Olympics·Q & A

Canadian expert doubts Tokyo can hold a COVID-free Olympics

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician, says a lack of mandated quarantine and vaccine protocols in Japan means outbreaks are likely when thousands of athletes gather in Tokyo this summer.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch says lack of quarantine, vaccine protocols means outbreaks are likely

Staffs and security personnel participate in a screening test for spectators and officials in October in an attempt to ensure a safe Tokyo Olympics, but there is a still a question on whether any spectators will be permitted to watch the events. (The Associated Press)

With less than 100 days to go until the Tokyo Summer Games, there are still many unanswered questions about what the Olympics and Paralympics will look like. More than 15,000 athletes from around the world are expected to compete, with tens of thousands of media, officials and other support staff also flooding into Japan.

A new IOC playbook on protocols, rules and regulations is expected in the coming days to shed more light on the expectations of athletes, media and officials before, during and after the competition. 

CBC Sports contacted Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and a member of Ontario's COVID-19 vaccine task force, to get his perspective on the risks associated with going forward with the Olympics. 

CBC Sports: What risks do Canadian athletes face by attending these Games?

Dr. Isaac Bogoch: It depends. If they're vaccinated their risks are extraordinarily low. If they're unvaccinated they'll have to work really hard to stay within the protocols to make sure they don't get infected. I would hope that attendees of the Olympics are vaccinated prior to the competition.

CBC Sports: Vaccines aren't mandatory to compete. How big of a problem is this?

Dr. Bogoch: It's a problem. We're in the vaccine era and you're getting a lot of people together in close proximity, sometimes in indoor settings. That's how this virus is transmitted. It just means you have much less wiggle room to protect athletes and other people involved in the Games.

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CBC Sports: What is the risk involved with travelling on commercial flights to compete in the Games?

Dr. Bogoch: The risks on commercial flights are extraordinarily low. It's not zero per cent but it's a lot lower than people think and this is largely because there's universal masking on airplanes, in addition to very sophisticated ventilation systems. There have been cases of COVID-19 transmitted on airplanes but the number is much smaller than you would think considering a lot of people in an indoor environment.

CBC Sports: What evidence supports these Games going forward safely?

Dr. Bogoch: You have to think about four big things: the safety of athletes and those people close to them. Public safety and public health. Ethics. And the fourth is optics. We still need some clarity to address all four of those issues. We need more information on that moving forward.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch says not requiring vaccines means less wiggle room to protect athletes and other people involved in the Games. (Submitted by Isaac Bogoch)

CBC Sports: What concerns you from a Canadian perspective?

Dr. Bogoch: This is a massive international event. I appreciate on the one hand it does tremendous good for the world but on the other hand you can't put individuals at risk. You can't put people in Japan at risk. And you have to provide a net-positive to the world. I would hope that the IOC would provide some net-benefit to the world for putting on these Games that go above and beyond entertainment and global competition.

I hope that they would make a massive donation to the COVAX program to help vaccinate lower-income countries where many of the athletes are coming from.

CBC Sports: There is no mandatory 14-day quarantine after arriving in Japan. How big of a problem is that?

Dr. Bogoch: If you have no mandatory quarantine and you're not mandating vaccinations, you wouldn't be surprised if there are outbreaks of COVID-19.

Maybe you have diagnostics tests and you know testing can certainly help. However, if you have a significant number of people not vaccinated and if you haven't quarantined people, testing can only help identify outbreaks early on and limit the spread of outbreaks. But they're not going to prevent outbreaks.

There are creative ways you can work around this. You can quarantine days before you leave. Pre-departure testing. Testing upon arrival. You can vaccinate people upon arrival. You can have people arrive earlier. There's a lot you can do to make this safer.

CBC Sports: Should domestic fans be allowed to attend?

Dr. Bogoch: I'd be extremely careful about getting people together, especially in indoor environments when people have not been vaccinated. I'd be very hesitant about that personally. It shouldn't come to anyone's surprise that if you get them together in an indoor venue there can be transmission. You can lower that risk with masks and protocols but this is a very transmissible infection.

CBC Sports: Should there be more concerns with the variants?

Dr. Bogoch: Yes. The variants just mean any outbreaks we see will be larger. And based on probability some people who get infected, even though many of them are healthy, young athletes, will develop more significant symptoms. You have to be careful. And not only in the venues where they're competing, but moving around and where they're living.

CBC Sports: False positives. What can be done to prevent this?

Dr. Bogoch: You can have the laboratory capacity to repeat testing immediately should you have a false positive test. Having said that, there's a cost of doing business in the context of a pandemic. This is not life as normal. This is a pandemic Olympics. You're not going to be afforded all of the conveniences of a regular Games. You can have laboratory capacity to rapidly conduct [repeat] tests if you consider someone a false positive.

CBC Sports: What is the likelihood of 15,000 athletes coming together and there being no negative cases?

Dr. Bogoch: I'd be shocked if that happened. If there's no quarantine and you don't mandate vaccines and people are coming in and out, I'd be surprised. They're coming in from all over the world.

They're probably going to get a few positives. A lot of this will depend on two things: what are the details of their local protocols to identify positive cases and prevent them from spreading. And number two, which is often harder, what is the adherence to those protocols on the ground. That's the challenging part.


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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