Could the upcoming Olympics make COVID even worse?

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Photo via Scott Kouchi for Real Estate Japan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The chairman of the Japan Doctors Union who has been critical of Tokyo going forward with hosting the Olympics this summer is warning that there could be an “Olympic strain” of COVID-19 that comes with the global gathering in Japan’s largest city.

Dr. Naoto Ueyama, looking at Japan’s case numbers and their impact on the healthcare system, is expressing wariness about the quadrennial sporting event, originally pushed from its planned 2020 dates to this coming July 23-August 8.

“It is dangerous to hold the Olympics here in Tokyo this July,” he remarked in a press conference, as reported by the Washington Post. With people from more than 200 nations set to converge on the Olympics, he noted that “all of the different mutant strains of the virus that exist in different places will be concentrated and gathered here in Tokyo.”

Concerns about the event have also been voiced by several prominent medical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, which recently wrote, “We believe the IOC’s determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence.”

The British Medical Journal also expressed a wish that Olympic organizers would reconsider holding the Games, given that vaccines are still not widely available in parts of the world and “huge uncertainty remains about the trajectory of the pandemic.”

But Kenji Shibuya—director of the Institute of Population Health at King’s College in London, who has been assisting with Japan’s inoculation efforts—wasn’t as concerned about staging the Olympics.

“Mutation takes place when virus stays in immuno-compromised or partially immunized people for a long period of time,” Shibuya said, according to Reuters. “So the current situation in Japan is more dangerous than (during) the Tokyo Games, in my opinion.”

Currently, only 2.3% of Japan’s approximately 125 million residents are fully vaccinated, making it one of the world’s slowest vaccine rollouts. That’s compared to about 50% of fully vaccinated Americans, as of late May.

Japan’s government is currently preparing to extend a state of emergency across much of the nation, as the Japan Times reported. That status was originally supposed to be lifted on May 31 but now could extend well into June, meaning that it might be lifted just mere weeks before visitors from across the world arrive for the festivities.

An International Olympic Committee even said the Olympics could be held under a state of emergency. That displeased Ueyama.

“In regards to these statements,” the doctor said, “the people of Japan are indeed holding great anger toward this, and this is even more the case for healthcare and medical professionals.”

Sources: Washington Post, Reuters, Japan Times

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