Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said Thursday that canceling the Tokyo Games “is still an option,” a rare admission by a top official that has cast further doubt upon the postponed sporting event.

His remarks came as a surprise since public officials, organizers and stakeholders have been steadfast in their public support for holding the Summer Games in July despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“If it’s too difficult (to hold the games), they should be canceled,” Nikai said during an interview with TBS. “What is the point of the Olympics if it helps spread the virus further?”

Nikai's remarks come as doubts continue to shroud the Tokyo Games, with top officials and scientists clashing over how many domestic spectators should be allowed to attend competitive events in person or whether the games should even go ahead.

While organizers announced in March that fans from overseas would be banned from attending, the debate over the degree to which domestic spectators will be capped continues to be divisive.

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the country’s vaccine rollout, said the games “could be held without spectators,” during an interview on Thursday with TV Asahi.

“The games will be held in a way unlike any other,” he said.

“At 50% (spectator capacity), sufficient precautions can be taken,” Seiko Hashimoto, president of the organizing committee, said Tuesday during an interview with the Nikkei daily. Organizers will hold a five-way meeting possibly before the end of April to decide the matter, she reportedly said.

But experts warn that even holding the games without spectators would be dangerous if COVID-19 is still running rampant.

Hiroshi Nishiura, a professor at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Medicine and a member of the central government’s coronavirus advisory board, said organizers should consider postponing the games for another year.

“If a majority of the general population is to be vaccinated by a year later, postponing the Tokyo Games one more year should be considered an effective option,” Nishiura told weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has said that the games will be canceled if they aren't held this year, maintains that preparations are moving forward to hold the Olympics safely in July.

Japan began vaccinating its elderly population earlier this week but it’s still unclear when the general population will begin receiving their shots.

Tokyo reported 729 new cases on Thursday — the capital's highest daily count in more than two months — and new infections nationwide reached 4,302 cases Wednesday, the first time it topped 4,000 cases since Jan. 28.

In a report published Wednesday by the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal, a team of researchers urged Japanese officials and the IOC to reconsider hosting the Tokyo Games, pointing to the country’s failure to contain community transmission of the coronavirus, and the undue burden a resurgence of new cases during the sporting event would put on front-line medical workers.

“While the determination is encouraging, there has been a lack of transparency about the benefits and risk, and international mass gathering events such as Tokyo 2020 are still neither safe nor secure,” the report said. “Holding Tokyo 2020 for domestic political and economic purposes — ignoring scientific and moral imperatives — is contradictory to Japan’s commitment to global health and human security.”

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