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Tokyo Olympics unrealistic without a vaccine?

Experts have said it could take 12-18 months or longer to develop a vaccine that is safe and effective for clinical use.

TOKYO, Japan — The head of Japan’s medical association thinks it will be difficult to hold the Olympics without an effective coronavirus vaccine.

“I hope vaccines and drugs will be developed as soon as possible,” Japan Medical Association President Yoshitake Yokokura said Tuesday.

Japan and the International Olympic Committee agreed to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games until July 23, 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Japan is under a monthlong state of emergency amid a rapid increase of infections throughout the country, where hospitals are overburdened.

Yokokura did not say whether he opposes the Olympics without a vaccine.

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“The key is a situation with the infections at that point. If the infections are under control only in Japan, it will still be difficult to hold the games unless the pandemic is over in the rest of the world,” he said.

Experts have said it could take 12-18 months or longer to develop a vaccine that is safe and effective for clinical use.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think the Olympics is likely to be held next year,” Kentaro Iwata, a professor of infectious disease at Kobe University, said April 20 speaking in English on a teleconference. “Holding the Olympics needs two conditions; one, controlling COVID-19 in Japan, and controlling COVID-19 everywhere.”

Japan has 13,576 reported virus cases, plus 712 others from a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo earlier this year, with 389 deaths, the health ministry said Tuesday.

Credit: AP
A man is seen through the Olympic rings in front of the New National Stadium in Tokyo, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. IOC President Thomas Bach has agreed "100%" to a proposal of postponing the Tokyo Olympics for about one year until 2021 because of the coronavirus outbreak, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Devi Sridhar, a professor of Global Health at the University of Edinburgh, also said holding the Olympics may depend on finding a vaccine. This could also apply to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in China, where the coronavirus was first detected.

She said a vaccine was “optimistically 12 to 18 months away."

“Science is just half the battle,” Sridhar said in an email to The Associated Press. “The other half is manufacturing enough doses and getting these into people across the world. How would prioritization be done?"

She asked who would get the vaccine first, health workers, those working with the vulnerable or the elderly, or the elderly themselves. Sridhar said it was unclear how young, strong, Olympic athletes would “fit” into the “priority process.”

“I’m sure there is going to be some innovative thinking about how to combine safety of athletes, their coaches and teams, with the awareness that sports play a crucial role for the world — for economic reasons, but also socially,” she said.

Masa Takaya, a spokesman for the Tokyo Olympics, said he was aware of the comments from the head of the Japan Medical Association.

“We understand there are a variety of insights, opinions around the possibility of hosting the games next year,” Takaya said. “Some medical experts are also expressing that it is too early to made a judgment."

There will a push from many quarters to hold the Olympics next year — vaccine or no vaccine, fans or no fans.

“This is placing tremendous pressure on all involved to devise an acceptable, rather than optimal solution,” David Carter, who teaches sports business at the University of Southern California, said in an email to the AP. “Add to this the unwavering importance the IOC places on its brand, and the uncertainty in terms of public health and you find yourself with international sports’ version of a Rubik’s cube.”

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The International Olympic Committee depends on selling broadcast right for 73% of its income. Another 18% is from sponsors. The IOC has only two major events to sell, and broadcasters don't pay much of their fee until the Olympics are aired.

Japan has officially spent $12.6 billion to organize the Olympics, and a national audit office says the real figure is at last twice that large. Media estimates in Japan say the cost of the delay will be $2 billion to $6 billion.

Add to this 11,000 Olympic athletes, and 4,400 Paralympians. The vast majority get only one shot at the games.

And then there are the sponsors.

Japanese organizers have signed up more than 60, and they have paid about $3.3 billion to be linked to the Olympics. The IOC also had 14 long-term sponsors like Coca-Cola and semiconductor maker Intel, which are reported to pay about $100 million to be linked to the Olympics.

Tokyo has also sold millions of tickets. It's unclear what will happen if the Olympics are held without fans. The tickets carry a force majeure clause, which may permit organizers to avoid refunds.

Tokyo organizers expected an income of $800 million from ticket sales.

“The pandemic is changing sport worldwide,” said Doug Arnot, who has held senior staff or consulting positions with eight Olympic organizing committees.

The Los Angeles-based consultant worked with the Tokyo bid committee, but is no longer involved with Tokyo.

“It will probably have significant impacts on the way we organize events and the way we deliver them. This is not just about Tokyo," Arnot said. “This is about about the world of mega-events. This virus has changed the way we look at these events. Sport wants to be a responsible member of the world community."