Jan 31, 2022 - Health

The Omicron Olympics face the ultimate test

Illustration of a covid-shaped hockey puck approaching a hockey goalie.
Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Health experts are worried the Beijing Olympics face the perfect conditions for a COVID outbreak, due to the lightning-fast spread of Omicron, vaccines' weakened protection against the variant, and a mentality that the Games must go on in spite of the risks.

Why it matters: These Games boast a "closed-loop system" that has been called the strictest ever created for a global sporting event. But China's protocols seem more focused on keeping COVID from escaping the loop than protecting those inside it, critics say.

  • The rules even direct locals not to help if an Olympics vehicle gets in an accident.

"China is trying to protect China, not the athletes," Annie Sparrow, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, told Axios.

  • From the moment athletes, their teams, and journalists arrive, they will be regularly tested for COVID, at risk of being whisked away to an even more stringent medical quarantine.
  • Even so, when they leave the Games, they'll be taken directly to the airport to fly out on non-commercial flights. That "is a huge flag that the Chinese are aware the closed-loop is a dangerous place and they're trying to separate it from the rest of China," Sparrow said.
  • "China has made their decision, and they're gonna steamroll this thing," Apolo Ohno, the most decorated American Olympian at the Winter Games, told the Rolling Stone. "They're not gonna cancel the Games."

The state of play: Omicron is still spreading fast, and now there are new warnings of an even more contagious version of the variant.

  • "The trillion-dollar question is: Can they beat Omicron?" Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told Axios.
  • "At least, in theory, they've laid out a plan that won't stop COVID from beginning in the Games, but it could and should greatly limit transmission. Then again, we're up against Omicron and I'm not sure how effective anybody could be against that virus."
  • China's success at controlling the spread of COVID variants has also left that country particularly vulnerable as its population has little natural immunity.
  • Recent research has found China’s vaccines "offer limited protection against Omicron, even in protecting people from severe COVID complications and death," Osterholm and Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the New York Times.

Between the lines: As with the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a playbook released by the International Olympic Committee lays out a COVID safety strategy that stretches from well before an athlete's departure to the Games to their trip back home.

  • Similar to Tokyo, individuals must test negative to enter China, must wear masks in public areas, and are told to socially distance, practice hand hygiene and get tested for COVID daily.
  • But at these Games, China is also requiring vaccinations or quarantine for 21 days after arrival. Delegations have been told to use higher quality respirator masks, such as an N95s or KN95s.
  • Locals working within the closed-loop system won't be able to return to their homes until they've been quarantined. Even trash will be held in isolation.

Yes, but: While there's been no shortage of promotion of how China is working to curb the spread of COVID, including showing PPE-covered workers spraying disinfectant and robots delivering food, organizers have offered few specifics about ventilation beyond saying it would meet "local standards."

  • "Masks can't be sufficient in and of themselves to stop transmission," Sparrow said. "That's why we need ventilation, or filtration, to clean the air."

The other side: The Beijing Organizing Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

  • In an emailed statement, an IOC official pointed to comments by Brian McCloskey, chairman of the Olympics medical expert panel, who said focusing on all public health tools available did not mean officials were neglecting one of them, such as ventilation. The IOC did not respond to specific questions about the details of the ventilation standards.
  • "If people stick to the rules, we will not see Omicron spreading within the loop and we won't see Omicron spread out of that loop," McCloskey told reporters during a Jan. 23 news conference.
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