Analysis: Olympics Rapidly Spread Omicron To Test Beijing Winter Games Bubble

PPE workers stand next to the Olympic rings inside the closed loop area near the National Stadium, or Bird’s Nest, where the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics will be held. of Beijing 2022, in Beijing, China on December 30, 2021. REUTERS / Thomas Pierre

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BEIJING, Jan. 3 (Reuters) – China’s meticulous plans to prevent an Olympics-seeded COVID-19 outbreak by locking all participants in a “closed loop” for the next Winter Games will be tested by the emergence of the highly infectious variant of Omicron.

The country has only reported a handful of Omicron cases and has been largely successful in containing COVID-19 since it emerged in the central city of Wuhan two years ago, thanks to a zero tolerance policy that includes rigorous research contacts, strict targeted lockdowns, and travel restrictions that have dramatically reduced international arrivals.

But more than 2,000 international athletes are expected to come to China for the Games, which kick off Feb. 4, along with 25,000 other “stakeholders,” many from overseas. The organizers did not specify how many of these people would be in closed circuit.

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Organizers believe their measures “can ensure that both the Winter Olympics and the Paralympic Winter Games can run safely and on time,” Organizing Committee spokesperson Yan Jiarong said last Thursday. , during a press conference.

Restrictions on Games venues in Beijing and Zhangjiakou in neighboring Hebei province will be much tighter than those at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.

At the heart of the planning is the strictly enforced closed loop that physically separates Games-related personnel from the local population, foreign participants entering and exiting the bubble directly, which includes dedicated transportation.

In Tokyo, which took place when Delta was booming globally, a bubble was strictly enforced, although local residents such as reporters and volunteers were able to enter and exit at will and some foreign visitors. can leave after being in the country for 14 days and testing negative several times.

But Omicron, which appears to be much more transmissible than previous variants, is now driving global COVID-19 infections to record levels and disrupting the sporting calendar.

The North American National Hockey League, which has postponed 90 games, has announced it will not send its players to the Olympic ice hockey tournament due to timing issues induced by COVID-19. The CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee told a broadcaster on Friday that he was increasingly questioning whether the Games could go as planned. Read more

“That’s what I sometimes call a sprinter. It’s extremely contagious and it’s fast,” Irene Petersen, professor of epidemiology at University College London, said of Omicron.

She said the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow this fall showed that a large-scale international event could minimize transmissions through extensive testing.

“But that was in the Delta era… we didn’t see anything like the Omicron,” she said.

SOME CASES DURING TEST EVENTS

Games organizers said test events held earlier this year involving some 2,000 foreign participants showed Beijing’s COVID-19 measures to be effective. Beijing has only reported a handful of cases among athletes in test events.

“The system is developed in such a way as to minimize the risk of exposure of Chinese people to the virus,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior researcher for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank.

Still, the risk will increase with the Olympics, he said, “not only because the Chinese people are largely quite vulnerable to these epidemics because most people have not been exposed to the virus, but also because the Chinese vaccine has been shown to be ineffective in preventing new infections ”.

About 85% of the Chinese population has been vaccinated, mainly with Chinese vaccines manufactured by Sinopharm and Sinovac. The approximately 20,000 Chinese and other volunteers who will enter the Olympic closed loop have been vaccinated. Efficacy readings in clinical trials for Chinese injections ranged between 50% and 83.5% against symptomatic disease, below figures of over 90% for injections from Pfizer (PFE.N) and Moderna (MRNA). .O).

Recent studies seem to show that vaccine antibody responses are weaker against Omicron than previous strains, but it is still unclear how the variant would affect their overall efficacy.

BUBBLES AND TESTS

As in Tokyo, no international spectators will be allowed at the Beijing Winter Games, and local attendance at the event venues will likely be reduced.

Olympic participants must systematically test negative before being allowed to board specially organized flights to Beijing. Upon arrival, participants must be vaccinated or face three weeks of quarantine. Everyone will be tested daily.

However, such tests cannot be trusted to detect cases during the incubation period of the virus, and organizers have acknowledged that they expected a “number” of COVID-19 cases given the large number of international arrivals.

“If you use tests to rule out people with infectious disease, you will have to test them at their doorstep,” said Petersen of University College London.

Michael Baker, professor of public health at the University of Otago in Wellington, said the combination of travel from several countries and the concentration of athletes and staff poses challenges exacerbated by the higher transmissibility and the shorter incubation of Delta and Omicron.

“Therefore, it will be difficult to contain the epidemics that occur during the Olympics, with the risk of transmission between Games participants and also in the community at large. “

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Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Martin Quin Pollard Editing by Tony Munroe and Michael Perry

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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