“With only 177 days to go and our preparations accelerating, we must firmly tackle the new coronavirus to contain it, or we are going to regret it,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Wednesday. “I will do the utmost to contain this new problem as we cooperate closely with all of you.”
The virus already is disrupting Olympic qualifiers, and the concerns caused a mini-meltdown on Japanese social media when the Buzzap website asked whether the Games might be canceled.
The story, based on a German news report of contacts between the International Olympic Committee and the World Health Organization, went viral before Koike denied it. But it caused some to ask some previously unthinkable questions.
Could the fast-spreading and deadly virus put the Games at risk? Will spectators turn up to sit beside strangers in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium? How would people feel about venues packed with spectators wearing face masks? Could the Games proceed without spectators from China?
It took about six months in 2002 and 2003 to eliminate severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a similar coronavirus that results in pneumonia-like symptoms. But with less than six months until the Olympics, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases — more than 11,000 — already has surpassed the SARS total, even if the official death toll remains lower.
One source of hope: Pneumonia-type diseases do not generally survive and spread so well in the summer.
“Coronaviruses in general tend to be seasonal,” said Ikuo Tsunoda, a professor of microbiology at Japan’s Kindai University. “There was a fear of the Zika virus spreading during the Rio Olympics [in 2016], but it didn’t happen. In the light of the seasonality, I wonder if we should be worrying about it, being held in the hot summer, at this point.”
The potential flaw in that argument: Every virus is different, and little is known about the new strain.
“Many times, respiratory viruses die out when ambient temperature is high,” said Yuen Kwok-yung of University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital. Yuen is an expert on SARS who is also at the forefront of research into the new strain. “But this is novel coronavirus; we do not know!”
Japan has confirmed 14 cases of the virus. Many of the patients were Chinese tourists from Wuhan, but among them were a tour bus driver and guide, as well as three Japanese citizens evacuated from the city at the center of the epidemic.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament Friday that the government has decided to raise its infectious-disease advisory for China to Level 2, urging citizens to avoid non-urgent trips to the country and all trips to Hubei province.
Japan had been banking on an influx of tourists from China this year to boost its economy, with hundreds of thousands normally coming this week during the Lunar New Year holiday. But those expectations are being scaled back after Beijing banned overseas group tours.
The virus already has disrupted sporting events in China, including Olympic qualifiers.
The world indoor track and field championships, due to be held in Nanjing in March, were postponed for a year, and the first World Cup ski races set to be held at the venue of Beijing’s 2022 Winter Games were canceled.
Olympic qualifying tournaments in women’s basketball and women’s soccer, scheduled to take place in China in February, were moved to Serbia and Australia, respectively, and a boxing qualifying tournament for the Asia-Oceania region set for Wuhan was shifted to Jordan.
China delayed the start of its Super League soccer season, and the international field hockey federation postponed Pro League games in the country. Formula 1’s governing body said it is “monitoring the evolving situation” as it decides whether the Chinese Grand Prix can take place in Shanghai in April.
But moving or postponing the Olympics would be a tougher prospect.
Government officials said they have incorporated disease planning in their preparations.
“Infectious disease is always an important issue,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under government ground rules, noting previous concerns about the Zika virus in the run-up the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games and an outbreak of norovirus at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018. “So we remain vigilant.”
There were no confirmed cases of Zika connected to the Rio Olympics. More than 200 people were diagnosed with norovirus in PyeongChang, mostly security staff and Games personnel, but also two Swiss skiers. The H1N1 swine flu virus overshadowed the run-up to the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, but it did not disrupt the Games.
The IOC said countermeasures against infection would be an important part of Tokyo’s preparations.
“Tokyo 2020 will continue to collaborate with all relevant organizations which carefully monitor any incidence of infectious diseases and will review any countermeasures that may be necessary with all relevant organizations. In addition, the IOC is in contact with the World Health Organization, as well as its own medical experts,” the IOC said in response to questions from The Washington Post.
Koji Wada, a professor of public health at International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo, co-authored a paper in 2018 that examined health risks from the influx of visitors to the 2020 Games. He said there probably was not enough time to develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus strain, but other preventive measures could be devised based on analyses of how the virus is spreading.
“It may require cooperation from athletes and spectators, but we should be working toward hosting the Olympics safely,” he said.
Measures might include devices to take people’s temperatures as they enter venues, Wada said.
Hitoshi Oshitani, a virology professor at Tohoku University’s School of Medicine, said it was too early to know how long the virus would linger, but he called the situation worrying.
“We might possibly even see another outbreak in the middle of the Olympics,” he said. “We have to be well prepared for that possibility. It is not something unthinkable.”
For now, Japan is gearing up for the Games at full tilt, taking the precautions it can and believing things will be all right.
Organizers have sold 4.5 million tickets to residents of Japan via lotteries, but demand was sky high, with more than 80 million requests.