• Reuters, Kyodo

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The so-called bubble to control COVID-19 infections at the Olympic Athlete’s Village in Tokyo is already “broken” and poses a risk of spreading infections to the general populace, a prominent public health expert warned on Tuesday.

In the latest revelation of infections spreading among athletes and staff, Olympics organizers said Tuesday a foreign athlete at the village and eight other people related to the Games had newly tested positive for the coronavirus.

The tally also included an Olympic volunteer for the first time since the committee started compiling figures on July 1, bringing the total number of Games-related infections to 67.

The new findings come after officials reported the first COVID-19 case among competitors in the village in Tokyo on Sunday, and the infections of a Czech beach volleyball player in the village and an American gymnast at a training camp near Tokyo on Monday.

“It’s obvious that the bubble system is kind of broken,” said Kenji Shibuya, the former director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London.

“My biggest concern is, of course, there will be a cluster of infections in the village or some of the accommodation and interaction with local people,” he said. About 11,000 athletes are expected to stay in the village.

Security staff stand guard at the entrance of the athletes village, where a growing number of athletes and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. | REUTERS
Security staff stand guard at the entrance of the athletes village, where a growing number of athletes and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. | REUTERS

Insufficient testing at the border and the impossibility of controlling people’s movements mean that the Games could exacerbate the spread of the infectious delta variant of the virus, he added.

According to the Olympic playbook, which sets out coronavirus safety rules, close contacts may only compete after returning negative daily PCR tests, undergoing health examinations by experts and getting approval from the sport’s international federation.

The organizers and the Japanese government have insisted that it is possible to hold the Olympics safely despite the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing strict anti-virus measures.

Brian McCloskey, a health expert advising the International Olympic Committee, said at a press conference on Monday that the athletes’ village was safe because people staying there were being tested for the virus on a regular basis.

He also said the 58 COVID-19 cases that had been confirmed among people related to the Olympics by Monday were something he had expected and perhaps lower than projected.

He said he believes the games will not contribute to spreading the virus in Japan, while adding that it is impossible to predict what the infection situation will be after the Games close on Aug. 8.

Olympic athletes and staff wait to be tested for COVID-19 at Narita Airport on arrival Sunday. | KYODO
Olympic athletes and staff wait to be tested for COVID-19 at Narita Airport on arrival Sunday. | KYODO

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said last week that testing and quarantine protocols would leave “zero” risk of Games participants infecting residents in Japan.

Declarations like that only serve to confuse and anger people, Shibuya said, as actual conditions on the ground are “totally opposite.”

In April, Shibuya co-authored a commentary in the British Medical Journal that the Olympics must be “reconsidered” due to Japan’s inability to contain coronavirus cases.

However, Bach on Tuesday praised medical workers and volunteers for making the Tokyo Games possible amid the coronavirus pandemic and said the event would send a powerful message of “peace and solidarity.”

He also said that canceling the global sports extravaganza had never been an option for organizers.

“The IOC never abandons the athletes. Therefore, we took an unprecedented decision to postpone the Games (last year). Today I can admit we did not know how complex this would be,” he said.

New COVID-19 cases in Tokyo reached 1,410 on Saturday, a near six month high, while the Games are due to start in just three days.

Public health experts have warned that seasonal factors, increased mobility and the spread of the delta variant could lead to a surge past 2,000 cases per day in Tokyo by next month, levels that could drive the city’s medical system to breaking point.

Just 33% of people in Japan have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, among the lowest rate among wealthy countries according to a Reuters tracker. The vaccination push had gained steam since last month, but recently ebbed due to supply and logistical snags.

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