The Summer Olympics in Tokyo are still more than five months away, but as the coronavirus continues to spread in China, there are questions about whether the global health emergency might ultimately impact the Games.
Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto told reporters last week that he was “seriously worried” the coronavirus could disrupt the Olympics, which are scheduled from July 24 through Aug. 9. But he was more measured in his remarks the following day, adding that the Games will “be held as scheduled.”
As officials continue to monitor the situation, here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus as it pertains to the upcoming Olympic Games.
How has the coronavirus outbreak impacted Japan?
The first cases of the coronavirus, which on Tuesday was named “COVID-19” by the World Health Organization, occurred in Wuhan, China. And while there have since been confirmed cases in 24 other countries, 99% of the more than 45,000 cases remain in China.
According to the most recent figures released by the WHO on Wednesday, there have been 28 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Japan, including 24 that involve people who have traveled to China.
There are also 175 confirmed cases on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has been quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan — about 30 minutes south of Tokyo.
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Elizabeth Talbot, a professor at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine who specializes in infectious diseases, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday it is somewhat reassuring that — at least so far — the majority of confirmed cases can be linked directly to Chinese travel.
“A tiny proportion of the disaster, that this epidemic is, is outside China,” Talbot said.
Is the situation similar to Zika concerns in 2016?
There was fear leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro about the Zika virus, which spread from Asia and Africa to the Americas, including Brazil, in 2015.
While the coronavirus could prompt similar concerns as these Games approach, the virus itself is very, very different.
The Zika virus is largely transmitted by mosquitoes, and its impact is most significant for pregnant women. The coronavirus, meanwhile, is transmitted from person to person and is believed to impact “the (full) spectrum of our population,” according to Talbot.
Because it appears to transmit “very efficiently” from person to person, she said, the coronavirus does pose some additional challenges that Zika did not.
“It’s certainly much harder to prevent touching the wrong doorknob or getting exposed to an ill person sitting next to you than it is to avoid getting bit by a mosquito,” Talbot said.
What steps are Olympic organizers taking?
The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee announced last week that it has established a “novel coronavirus countermeasures task force,” to be led by Muto, its chief executive officer.
“Tokyo 2020 will continue to collaborate with all relevant organizations which carefully monitor any incidence of infectious diseases and we will review any countermeasures that may be necessary with all relevant organizations,” the committee said in a statement provided to USA TODAY Sports and other media outlets.
The Olympic organizing committee added that the Japanese government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government have also established groups to monitor and respond to issues related to the coronavirus.
Broadstone Group chairman Doug Arnot, who has been on the executive management teams of six Olympics and consulted with the organizing committees of others, told USA TODAY Sports that the greatest challenge that the Tokyo organizing committee is facing at this point is communication.
“It’s having everyone work from the facts rather than from conjecture or emotion,” Arnot said. “As you can imagine in circumstances like this, people’s imaginations run wild and they tend to go to the worst possible scenario without getting good facts. So the organizing committee’s biggest challenge right now is (getting) good information, and making sure that others are working off of good information.”
Arnot added that Olympic organizing committees have become increasingly detailed with their contingency planning in recent years, and that the Tokyo committee has likely planned for every eventuality — including something like a global health emergency.
“For every Games, you’re always working on contingencies,” Arnot said. “What happens if a particular venue isn’t ready? What happens if there’s a fire in this community? What happens if a venue or whatever else is compromised? You’re always working on contingency plans. You’re always working on a Plan B.”
What are officials saying?
Officials in Japan and with the International Olympic Committee have, to this point, offered no indications that the Tokyo Games could be postponed or canceled because of the coronavirus.
“I’d like to make it clear that there have been no talks or plans being considered between organizers and the International Olympic Committee since the World Health Organization declared an emergency,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told legislators last week, according to The Japan Times.
The IOC said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports and other media outlets that it has been in contact with the WHO and its own medical experts and “we have full confidence that the relevant authorities, in particular in Japan, China and the World Health Organisation, will take all the necessary measures to address the situation.”
“Preparations for Tokyo 2020 continue as planned,” the IOC added.
Craig Spence, a spokesperson for the International Paralympic Committee, told The Associated Press last week that “fear is spreading quicker than the virus, and it is important that we quell that fear.”
What threat does coronavirus pose to the Olympics?
The Tokyo Olympics are expected to attract more than 11,000 athletes from about 200 countries, in addition to approximately 600,000 overseas visitors. The Paralympics follow from Aug. 25 to Sept. 6 with about 4,400 athletes expected to compete.
With so many people packed into a relatively small area, there is always the possibility for infectious diseases to spread. Norovirus infected hundreds of people ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, for example. World Cups in soccer also pose similar challenges.
“At these kinds of mass gatherings, the risks increase that infectious diseases and resistant bacteria can be carried in,” Kazuhiro Tateda, the president of the Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases, said in a briefing last week, according to Reuters.
Talbot suspects the impact of COVID-19 will be felt at the Olympics in one way or another, whether that’s something more serious like travel restrictions or more subtle, such as the fear of coronavirus prompting some fans to skip the Games.
Ultimately, she said, it’s still too early to tell. While some estimates have the number of coronavirus cases peaking in late spring or early summer, the real future impact of the virus remains unclear.
“Those are models, estimates, mathematical equations that are applied to the known data,” Talbot said. “So I would say we really just don’t know where we’ll be at in several months. We hope that it’s true that things will be turning around by then.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.