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As The Tokyo Olympics Nears, Health And Vaccination Concerns Remain

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's not only poorer nations which are struggling to vaccinate their populations. In Japan, only about 3% of the population there has been fully vaccinated. That would be a problem under any circumstance, but it is now about six weeks before the Summer Olympics controversially kick off in Tokyo. Can Japan safely host the games? Dr. Annie Sparrow is with the Department of Health, Science and Policy at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and she's in Geneva at the moment, from where she joins us. Good morning.

ANNIE SPARROW: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a paper you authored about health concerns and the Olympics, you wrote, we believe the IOC's determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence. What worries you the most?

SPARROW: It has the potential to be a major spreading event rather than a mega sporting event. With upwards of 11,000 athletes and their entourage of 40,000 support staff and another 80,000 international staff and then another, you know, several hundred thousand workers and volunteers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With people just coming from other parts of the world, possibly carrying variants - I mean, at the end of the day, the IOC is not mandating vaccinations.

SPARROW: Well, absolutely. But it's not as if vaccinations alone are the answer. What concerns us a lot more is that the basic measures have not been put in place in order to protect not just the athletes and the sports stars, but the officials, the volunteers, the workers, the Japanese public.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say measures have not been put in place, describe to me what you would like to see and what, in fact, they are doing.

SPARROW: Well, this is an airborne virus. This is a small particle inhalation. So ventilation and clean air is critical, right? And what that means is, first of all, one hotel room per athlete. And instead the IOC is planning on at least two per room, if not three per these tiny, tiny apartments. So what you need to do is put in air cleaners like HEPA filters. Those are - that's a very basic measure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they haven't done it?

SPARROW: They haven't done that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, I've covered a few Olympics, and they are always enormously problematic for the host country. In Brazil in 2016, if you'll recall, there was Zika, and the games went on anyway. The games ended up bankrupting Rio de Janeiro and the state and didn't help the country, either. I mean, how culpable is the IOC in what seems to be their desire to have the games no matter the fallout?

SPARROW: You know, for Zika, that was a vector-borne and relatively modest outbreak in comparison with what we have today, which is, as you know, a pandemic of unprecedented proportions that is airborne and that - you know, we can't see the vector, of course. The vectors are humans themselves. And given that we're not going to cancel them, they're not going to be canceled. And we can see that it's absolutely critical that we do actually put in these measures to make them as safe as possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And if they don't and there's an outbreak, I mean, what would you think then?

SPARROW: We could actually get through - we could scrape through the Olympics, possibly. It's two weeks. It may be possible to get through. One month after that, we have the Paralympics. Now, that's a group of much higher-risk athletes of varying degrees of immunocompetence and compromise. Right in the middle of when we see that surge of infections - we all know what that looks like. Picture Thanksgiving or post-Thanksgiving two weeks, post-Christmas two weeks, we see that enormous surge. And then you can - the Paralympics, which begin one month after the Olympics do - that's right, bang, smack in the middle of that, and that's an incredibly vulnerable time.

As you point out, with the variants - you know, variants are going to come from every corner of the Earth. We've seen, you know, ones from the very beginning, like from South Africa that have much their way across southern Africa. By the time of the Olympics, they're going to be dominant across the whole of Africa. And that one, we are already concerned, has been - shows vaccine escape. And, you know, there are others, of course, that we - the Indian variant, Brazil variant, and there are more. And those variants, just like the Olympic athletes themselves, are going to mix. They can procreate and create a new mutant progeny, which will then be exported to 105 countries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Olympic variant - something to look forward to.

SPARROW: Yes, the Olympics of the variants, the - and it - but it's - you know, this is - it's not too late. We could put in the measures that we need to do. I mean, we know that temperature checks are ridiculous, may even be discriminatory and dangerous. And the IOC are doing it as if, you know, it's kind of an optics - a theater, and that should be replaced with testing. Because we know that testing once, if not at least twice a day, works. And not just of the athletes, but support staff, of officials, of workers. And that's an important measure. You know, we know that we could be asking the athletes to have wearables as the NFL and the NBA did - the bracelets, which are great at detecting your proximity to other people. Instead of giving them a smartphone - can you imagine Simone Biles clutching a smartphone as she does her vault or, you know, anyone - any Olympic athlete actually carrying a smartphone in competition? It's just incompatible with that level of competition. I mean, there's a really - there's lots of really interesting conversations around this. But at the end of the day, we've got about 49 days left, so we really need to get our global act together and put in place what needs to be done now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Annie Sparrow is assistant professor of population and health science and policy at Mount Sinai. Thank you very much.

SPARROW: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO DOPE'S "ABSENCE OF GRAVITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.