Top Japanese virologist warns of risks of Tokyo Games during pandemic-paper

FILE PHOTO: The emblems of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games are displayed during an unveiling event of the items that will be used for the victory ceremonies, at Ariake Arena in Tokyo, Japan June 3, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato/Pool

(Corrects spelling of scientist's name in 2nd paragraph.)

TOKYO (Reuters) -A top Japanese virologist and government adviser has said there was a risk of spreading COVID-19 infections during the Tokyo Olympics, the Times of London reported on Tuesday, the latest high-profile warning about the global sporting showpiece.

Tohoku University professor Hitoshi Oshitani was an architect of Japan's "Three Cs” approach to the pandemic, which advises avoiding closed spaces, crowds and close contact situations.

“The government and the organising committee, including the IOC (International Olympic Committee), keep saying they’re holding a safe Olympics. But everybody knows there is a risk. It’s 100 per cent impossible to have an Olympics with zero risk...of the spread of infection in Japan and also in other countries after the Olympics," the Times quoted Oshitani as telling the newspaper.

"There are a number of countries that do not have many cases, and a number that don’t have any variants. We should not make the Olympics (an occasion) to spread the virus to these countries," he added, noting most countries lack vaccines.

Already postponed from last year because of the pandemic, a scaled-down version of the Games with no foreign spectators is set to start on July 23 despite public fears the event could spread the coronavirus and drain medical resources.

However, a former Olympian turned public health expert said she believed the Games can be pulled off with an acceptable level of risk.

"There will be cases, but having one case or a couple of cases doesn't mean that it was a failure," Tara Kirk Sell, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Reuters on Tuesday.


Playbooks from event organisers detailing testing regimes and movement restrictions for athletes and other visitors "outline a good strategy" for minimising contagion, Sell added.

Media arriving from abroad to cover the Games will be closely monitored to ensure they don't leave pre-registered areas such as hotels and sports venues, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said. She also said Japan's Olympics-related staff were expected to start getting vaccinated in mid-June.

"... we are still in a very difficult situation, but we have seen a gradual decrease of infections in Tokyo, and I am praying that the pandemic is brought under control as swiftly as possible," Hashimoto said at the start of a Tokyo 2020 board meeting.

Japan has been spared the explosive outbreaks seen elsewhere but has recorded over 760,000 cases and more than 13,600 deaths. Tokyo and other regions are under a state of emergency as the nation battles a fourth wave which is straining hospitals.

The government's top medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, said last week medical experts planned a statement on the Games by June 20, when the state of emergency is set to be lifted.

A labour union in the northern island of Hokkaido, where the Olympic marathon will be held, petitioned its governor on Monday calling for the Games to be cancelled, media said.

Japanese Olympic Committee board member Kaori Yamaguchi, a judo bronze medallist at the 1988 Games, said on Friday Japan had been "cornered" into pressing ahead with the Games.

Japan's public remains divided about holding the Games, although opposition appears to be easing somewhat. A poll by broadcaster TBS this week showed 55% wanted the Games either postponed or cancelled - down 10 points from last month.

Sell, a silver medallist swimmer at the 2004 Games in Athens, said accelerating vaccinations and ebbing case numbers in Japan are positive signs the Olympics can go on, but noted the risks involved in any type of international travel.

"These Games are very much a symbol of the whole world emerging from this terrible, global pandemic," she said.

"If we wanted to be as safe as possible, we'd never leave our house."

(Reporting by Linda Sieg, Rocky Swift and Sakura Murakami; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Lincoln Feast & Shri Navaratnam)

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