Article initially published in Equal Times on February 3rd, 2022 and written by Gabriella Selva and Annie Sparrow.
Speaking of the Beijing Olympics, Chinese president Xi Jinping promises a “streamlined, safe and splendid Games”. International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach asserts that the Beijing 2022 Playbooks (Covid-related guidelines for athletes and team officials, and another for all other stakeholders taking part in the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games) provide “rules for living”. Sadly, they are both speaking more in the realm of wishful thinking than best scientific practices.
The threat is real. With the Winter Games about to begin, cases are rising in Beijing both inside and outside the much-vaunted ‘closed loop’ which separates Olympic participants from the public.
Inside the loop, 32 athletes and Games officials have tested positive as have another 63 stakeholders – coaches, support staff, and media – from 23 January through 2 February. This is on top of 70 athletes and officials and 122 other stakeholders who tested positive at the airport, despite the requirement for isolation and two negative tests pre-departure.
It’s not just athletes, support staff, and other Games participants who are at risk. China itself is very vulnerable. With less than 0.1 per cent of its 1.4 billion population having been infected, China has essentially no natural immunity to Covid-19.
While 84 per cent of Chinese people are fully vaccinated, Chinese vaccines – Sinovac and Sinopharm – provide little protection against Delta, and none at all against Omicron. Beijing’s first Omicron case, a 26-year-old banker, was triple vaccinated with Sinovac.
Since Beijing’s first local Omicron case surfaced on 15 January, data from the official website of the National Health Commission report hundreds more local cases in multiple districts across Beijing.
As a result, the Chinese government is playing whack-a-mole with Omicron. As new cases are reported daily, it is locking down entire cities, or sealing off blocks of flats and office towers, sometimes trapping people far from their homes, while subjecting millions to mass testing.
China’s approach to the Beijing Olympics, endorsed by the World Health Organization, is not informed by current science or best practice. It is designed less to protect athletes and other Games participants than to hermetically seal off Olympic villages from the rest of China, including by banning spectators. The closed loop presupposes that no one with Covid will get in, but few measures have been put in place to de-contaminate the closed loop or filter out the virus when, as has already occurred, it does get in.
Beijing needs more than vaccines and testing
The Chinese government requires all Olympic participants to be vaccinated, but there are enormous disparities in vaccine efficacy against Delta and Omicron. The Playbooks’ statement that “vaccines are proven to be effective against infection and transmission” is not true even among the most effective vaccines, and certainly not for Chinese-made ones. The purpose of vaccines is to prevent not infection but serious illness. Moreover, at least five of the Olympic teams – including the Chinese team – are from countries predominantly or exclusively vaccinated with Sinopharm and Sinovac.
As for testing, all participants are PCR tested on arrival at Beijing airport before being taken to their closed loop shared accommodation and waiting up to six hours to receive the results. As in Tokyo, Games participants are then subjected to daily PCR testing and notified of the results 8 to 18 hours later. Close contacts of those who test positive will be informed within 24 hours.
But testing is a lagging indicator and a poor substitute for preventive measures. By the time a person’s positive status is known, they may already have infected multiple other people.
The IOC’s complacency comes in part from the fiction it maintains that its similar Covid measures in Tokyo were successful, and that the Tokyo Games had no effect on Japan’s rate of Covid cases. To be sure, Japan’s rate began dropping about the same time as the Olympics began, but that is far more likely to do with Japan’s increasing vaccination rate which went from 10 per cent to nearly 50 per cent over the same period.
The IOC claimed that genomic sequencing showed no mixing between athletes and local Japanese, that the athletes did not bring new strains of Covid back home, and that athletes were infected with only strains they had self-imported.
But a study of global transmissions of the Delta substrain AY.29 shows that people returning from the Tokyo Games spread it all over the world. The IOC has provided no data to refute that finding. Rather, after claiming a low positivity rate, it removed all the Covid-19 data for Olympics and Paralympics participants from its website.
Athletes cannot be responsible for preventing transmission
Now, the IOC is using similar measures in Beijing, even though Omicron is several times more contagious than Delta. China’s ‘closed loop’ refers to dozens of venues and hotels in three cities, connected by dedicated transport vehicles. Unlike Tokyo, where workers commuted back and forth, Chinese workers are not allowed to return to their own homes.
It is encouraging that the Beijing Playbooks recognise aerosol transmission. However, the minimal mention of ventilation makes this recognition more a nod to reality than a meaningful statement. In a sinister echo of the Chinese government’s fiction that the virus did not originate in Wuhan but was imported on packaging of frozen food, the Playbooks stress surface cleaning, which is completely irrelevant to the spread of Covid-19. The heavy focus on hand hygiene, physical distancing of one to two metres, and worthless plexiglass barriers is in stark contrast with the lack of structural measures to reduce the viral load in enclosed spaces and thus the risk of transmission.
Built-in ventilation would ensure an adequate number of air changes in enclosed spaces. HEPA air filters would weed out Covid-19 and other contagions. But these are not prescribed. Instead, athletes are told to ventilate their own rooms by opening a window. That is not only insufficient ventilation but also unlikely, given sub-zero temperatures in Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiako.
The IOC’s measures will not be enough to prevent the inhalation of infectious aerosols in indoor spaces. There is no risk assessment. No special precautions have been adopted for indoor sports and especially close-contact sports. Curling, for example, has been associated with high transmission rates.
Now, as with Tokyo, the IOC is hoping to make it through by pretending that case numbers are well within expectations. In Tokyo, the IOC’s failure to act on recognition of aerosol transmission and its focus instead on outmoded theories of droplet spread came at the cost of dozens of athletes’ hopes and dreams. Rather than investing in clean air, the IOC is once again placing primary responsibility for preventing transmission on athletes.
The Olympics are meant to be the standard-bearers. The motto of ‘Faster, Higher Stronger’ applies just as well to Omicron – which spreads faster, despite higher vaccination rates, and underscores the need for stronger prevention measures. The substandard, get-by-on-the-cheap procedures that the Chinese government and the IOC have instituted for the Beijing Olympics risk lowering global standards for everyone. It is unlikely that only athletes will pay the price.
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