Olympics-'Absurd' to stage Tokyo Games, says professor of public health

FILE PHOTO: Olympics - Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Test Event - Athletics - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - May 9, 2021. An athlete competes in the men's hammer throw event during the morning session of the Athletics test event. REUTERS/Issei Kato

(Reuters) -A professor of public health and adviser to the New Zealand government said on Tuesday there was no justification for holding the Tokyo Olympics during a pandemic, and to go ahead would be 'absurd' and cost lives.

Otago University professor Michael Baker, who specialises in epidemiology and has worked on a COVID-19 Technical Advisory Group for the Ministry of Health, told Reuters the Games should be cancelled.

"I think it is absurd to have the Olympics at the present time," he said.

"I mean, if you think of the two key features of the Olympics, they involve a huge amount of international travel and mass gatherings, and they're two things that are entirely incompatible with the pandemic.

"It's going to cost lives having the Olympics at the moment. It's an optional activity. I love the Olympics, and I really feel for the athletes who trained so hard to go, but there's no reason, no justification whatsoever, to have the Olympics at the moment."

Tokyo is due to host the games from July 23 to Aug. 8 after they were already postponed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have faced calls for a further postponement or cancellation because of rising coronavirus cases in Japan and elsewhere.

Several opinion polls in Japan have shown a majority of the public against holding the Olympics during a pandemic.

The IOC says measures such as mass testing and limited contact between athletes and other people involved in the games, will ensure they run smoothly.

But the IOC's "playbooks" for infection controls fail to distinguish risk levels faced by athletes or the limitations of temperature screenings and face coverings, according to a commentary in The New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday.

"We believe the IOC's determination to proceed with the Olympic Games is not informed by the best scientific evidence," wrote the authors including Michael Osterholm, who served as a COVID-19 adviser on President Joe Biden's transition team.

"With less than two months until the Olympic torch is lit, cancelling the Games may be the safest option," they wrote.

Much of Japan is currently under state of emergency measures and has vaccinated just 5.2% of its population.

Baker said the only way the Games could go ahead would be with the kind of zero-tolerance approach to the virus seen in the likes of Australia and New Zealand, where international borders have been closed and quarantine imposed.

"It will be tough, it could be done, but they're not doing it," he said, describing the current approach as a "very high risk, high stakes gamble".

"They are definitely not going to have a COVID-19 free event, that's for sure, not when you have the best part of 100,000 people flying in from all around the globe," he added.

(Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, additional reporting by Rocky Swift in Tokyo; editing by Toby Davis and Michael Perry)

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