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Will Olympic Games set standard for holding mass events during a pandemic?

Lucia Moris from South Sudan poses for a photograph during his training in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Maebashi [REUTERS]

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games will finally be held from July 23, after being postponed for a year thanks to Covid-19 pandemic that is still raging across the world.

One can only imagine the hurdles surmounted by the international Olympics committee (IOC) and the Japanese government - ranging from opposition from member countries and federations to a local population that have consistently voted for a cancellation of the games in several opinion polls – to finally host this event.

The Olympic Games have always been the largest and most diverse gathering of humanity, no event even comes closer.

As the world continues to battle a relentless virus with measures ranging from personal hygiene protocols to closing national borders, the games could not have come at a better time.

The world needs to come together and celebrate humanity albeit at its frailest position, the games will go a long way in uniting the world in solidarity, an attribute so important in fighting the pandemic.

In holding the games, the IOC and Japanese government have not thrown caution to the wind, looking at the plans that have been put in place ranging from the number of days an athlete will be allowed to stay in Japan, to the mobile tracking application (COCOA) that all athletes will be required to install, one can clearly see it’s a calculated move.

According to the latest Tokyo 2020 Playbook for the games, athletes will have to leave Japan within 48 hours after the end of their event and the usual shopping sprees at the games will not be allowed as all sightseeing and cultural tours have been prohibited. This is in a bid to limit contact with the local population.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have the best chance of success since they have had the last six months to learn from the many international sports events that have taken place across the world.

The events have been adhering to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Covid-19 protocols and none has been a super spreader event. However, none of these previous sporting events held since September 2020 has brought together at least 10,000 athletes and their officials, the Olympic games with its huge numbers will need to up the tempo if the games are to be a great success.

Kenya's Brigid Kosgei, right, and Kenya's Ruth Chepngetich race during the London Marathon in London, England, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. Athletes are competing on a 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) closed-loop course consisting of 19.6 clockwise laps around St. James' Park. [AP]

The vaccine will be their greatest ally in making the games memorable. Since the administration of the first Covid-19 vaccine in December 2020, governments across the world have been on overdrive to vaccinate as many of its citizens as possible.

Initially, there were doubts that the available vaccine doses won’t be enough to go round in 2021 in time for the games. However, with multiple and efficacious vaccines being made and approved by the WHO, all Olympic competitors and their officials might be vaccinated in time.

The IOC has been encouraging countries to vaccinate their Olympic athletes and has further announced it is ready to pay for doses for the host country’s population.

This shows how committed the global sporting body is to hosting these games that happen every four years.

The vaccines have not been without their controversies and challenges that are threatening their roll out success.

Over the past 15 months, 300 vaccine development projects have been initiated across the world independently by pharmaceutical companies or in collaboration with universities, independent research institutions and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

These vaccines are broadly classified as either nucleic acid vaccines (adopting DNA and RNA technology) or recombinant subunit vaccines (using none-replicating viral vector technology). The most pronounced DNA vaccine (INO-4800) from Inovio Pharmaceuticals is still under clinical trials but has demonstrated efficacy (antibody response) in approximately 95% of the trial participants.

Although the DNA vaccine trial by Inovio is expected to be completed in January 2022, there are limited severe adverse effect data that has been made public.

If all goes per plan, the DNA vaccines will provide options in the growing number of Covid-19 vaccines.

RNA-based vaccines using encapsulated mRNA technology are already in the market from Moderna and Pfizer pharmaceuticals companies.

On the other hand, the common recombinant subunit vaccines are from AstraZeneca and the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical companies.

Most of these subunit vaccines though effective, have been reported to have side effects ranging from blood clots, severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath some of which, might be increasing the uptake hesitancy among various individuals.

The most severe side effect has been micro-blood clots in the brain post vaccination that have been a major concern in many countries.

These blood clotting reports in the brain have been associated with both the AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines, though in very low proportions.

These two sub-unit vaccines are developed using adenoviruses which are not replicating, and some pundits have argued that the side-effects could be attributed to the similarity in their underlying non-replicating viral vector technology.

May 3, 2021 Canada's Jennifer Abel in action during the women’s 3m springboard semi final [REUTERS]

Subsequent reviews

A third subunit vaccine with limited information about its side effects is the Sinovac from China which uses an inactivated virus platform.

The above side effects have seen many countries suspending the administration of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, however, subsequent reviews on the trial data have shown that the benefits outweigh the risks.

This is because most of the regulators from these countries are applying the principle of beneficence to their citizens and this has made countries like the United States to resume the administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in full steam.

With 80 days to the Olympic Games, countries have stepped up their preparations albeit in secure bubbles and now many countries are fast-tracking vaccination of their athletes.

Kenya too, has joined the growing list of countries that are fast-tracking athlete vaccinations with the Sports Cabinet Secretary Amb. Amina Mohammed launching the exercise recently at Kasarani stadium.

With the vaccine hurdle cleared, the race is on for Olympic glory. The kind of sacrifices being made by both athletes and countries for the sake of having secure games goes to show why winning an Olympic medal or even just being an Olympian is the ultimate mark of achievement in sports.

Paul Ochieng is a Sports Economist and Gerald Lwande is a Biomedical Scientist


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