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Coronavirus would likely cancel Tokyo Olympics if it was to start tomorrow, virologist says

A respected Japanese virologist on Wednesday said if the Tokyo Olympics were tomorrow, the games probably couldn't be held because of the fast-spreading virus from Wuhan, China.

19 test events for Summer Games in July scheduled for Japan beginning in March

Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a respected Japanese virologist, told reporters Wednesday "it may be difficult to have the Olympics [now in Tokyo]. But by the end of July we may be in a different situation." (Associated Press)

A respected Japanese virologist on Wednesday said if the Tokyo Olympics were tomorrow, the games probably couldn't be held because of the fast-spreading virus from Wuhan, China.

"We need to find the best way to have a safe Olympics," Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani said, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. "Right now we don't have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics [now]. But by the end of July we may be in a different situation."

The local Tokyo Olympic organizing committee and the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly said over the last few weeks that they are following the advice of the World Health Organization and that the games will go on.

But with every passing day, the impact of the virus seems to spread, and so does the fallout: Olympic qualifying events are cancelled or postponed, travel gets difficult, and athletes and families are left wondering. Not to mention sponsors and broadcasting networks that have invested billions of dollars in the Olympics.

The modern Olympics dating from 1896 have only been cancelled during wartime, and in 1980 and 1984 they went on with boycotts.

Oshitani, a former adviser with the WHO who worked on the SARS outbreak almost 20 years ago, was hopeful but sowed some uncertainty about the July 24-Aug. 9 Olympics.

Over 75,000 people infected globally

"I'm not sure [of] the situation in Japan at the end of July," he said, answering in English. "But probably we will not have large outbreaks in Japan in July."

Oshitani said he was most concerned about a "Wuhan-type" of outbreak taking place in Africa or other parts of Asia and having cases imported into Japan. He said if that happened "it may get difficult to have" the Olympics. But he also suggested Japan might be able to handle it.

A tourist wearing a mask poses for a photo with the Olympic rings in the background at Tokyo's Odaiba district. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

"So what we have to do now is try to prevent such a thing from happening," he added, saying the Japanese government should support countries so they don't have "that kind of situation."

The viral outbreak has infected more than 75,000 people globally. China has reported 2,004 deaths among 74,185 cases on the mainland, mostly in the central province of Hubei. Only one death in Japan has been attributed to the virus.

Earlier in the week, Shigeru Omi, a former regional director of the WHO and an infectious disease expert from Japan, also said he could not be sure about the Olympics.

Mongolian archery team pulls out of camp in Japan

"Whether the outbreak will last until the Olympic date or not depends upon the virus and the societal effort and joint international community," he said at a news conference. "Nobody can predict whether we can contain the virus or put an end to this outbreak before the Olympics start. That's anybody's guess."

He added it was not a "big question mark, but there is a question mark."

In the spotlight are 19 test events that Japan is to hold beginning next month, a chance for organizers to practice in competition mode and an opportunity for potential Olympic athletes to check out Japan.

In a cancellation Wednesday, the Kyodo news agency reported that Mongolia's archery team had pulled out of a training camp in Japan's central Aichi prefecture.

Dozens of sports events have been called off around Asia in the wake of the outbreak, including the indoor world track and field championships next month in Nanjing, China, and the Formula One race in April in Shanghai.

Organizers announced last week that next month's Tokyo Marathon would be limited to elite runners and wheelchair athletes. About 38,000 runners had been expected to participate in one of the world's largest races.

Vancouver Olympic organizers faced similar fears in 2010

Dr. Mike Wilkinson is well-versed in viruses threatening Olympic Games.

Wilkinson will be the Canadian team's chief medical officer at this summer's Tokyo Olympics, which are the subject of concern due to the new coronavirus that has infected more than 75,000 people.

Wilkinson said organizers of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics faced similar fears.

An outbreak of H1N1 — swine flu — just six months before the opening of the Vancouver Winter Games caused panic.

One major difference: there was a vaccine for H1N1 and there is not one yet for COVID-19 that originated in Wuhan, China, and has killed more than 2,000 people in that country. Every athlete that arrived in Canada for the 2010 Olympics, Wilkinson said, was provided the vaccine, if they hadn't already received it in their country of origin.

Wilkinson is part of a Canadian team that will travel to Tokyo for a site inspection next week.

Wilkinson said the number of daily reported cases appears to be on the decline. There were almost 15,000 cases reported on Feb. 12, while "yesterday I think it was 1,900 new cases reported," he said Wednesday morning from Vancouver.

Large Canadian contingent for Tokyo

The sky-high Feb. 12 number, however, reflected a change in diagnosis classification.

Wilkinson said he and other Canadian Olympic Committee officials are monitoring the situation closely with Japanese officials, the World Health Organization, Health Canada and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control "as to the numbers and the risk."

Wilkinson said he's also in contact with each team's medical staff to distribute information about proper hygiene, precautions to take while flying, etc. Wilkinson said they're not only concerned about summer team athletes, but those in winter sports who are travelling to test events for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

"It's too early to tell when will this be over," Wilkinson said. "So we have to watch it very, very closely."

Canada is expected to send one of its biggest Olympic teams in history to Tokyo; Canada has qualified in eight team sports so far, one short of the record set in 1976 when Canada hosted in Montreal.

With files from The Canadian Press

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