Asked about Covid-19 shots for Olympic athletes, WHO says health workers are top priority

The Games are scheduled to open on July 23, after being postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

GENEVA (REUTERS, AFP) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) is providing risk management advice to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese authorities regarding the holding of the Tokyo Olympics, but the top priority is vaccinating health workers worldwide against Covid-19, its top emergency expert said on Monday (Jan 25).

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is sticking to his government's commitment to host the Summer Games, with officials last week dismissing a report in Britain's Times newspaper that said Tokyo had abandoned hope of holding the event this year.

WHO's top emergency expert Mike Ryan, asked whether athletes should be vaccinated as a priority, told a WHO news briefing: "We have to face the realities of what we face now. There is not enough vaccine right now to even serve those who are most at risk.

"We face a crisis now on a global scale that requires front-line health workers, those older people and those most vulnerable in our societies to access vaccine first."

The Games are scheduled to open on July 23, after being postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The WHO would work with the Lausanne-based IOC, the host city Tokyo and Japan's ministry of health, labour and welfare as part of their task force to "offer risk management advice right the way through the process", Dr Ryan said.

"The final decision on the risk management measures for the Olympics, and the final decision regarding the Olympics themselves, is a decision for the IOC and the Japanese authorities," he said.

On the same day, the president of the French National Olympic Committee said athletes who have not been vaccinated against Covid-19 would face "extremely difficult" conditions at the Tokyo Games.

Unvaccinated athletes who go to the Games in Japan face "quarantine of a fortnight" and "will have to undergo tests in the mornings and evenings," Mr Denis Masseglia warned.

The issue of vaccination of athletes for the Tokyo Olympics, postponed last year because of the pandemic, is to be discussed on Wednesday at a meeting of the IOC executive committee.

The IOC officially encourages the vaccination of athletes, but says it cannot impose it.

Mr Masseglia said there was no choice. In a video press conference, he said that "holding the Games is at stake".

"We are not alone," he added. "For our Japanese friends to receive athletes and accredited people from all over the world requires some precautions."

He said that the difficulties they would face could have "a dissuasive effect" for athletes who did not want to be vaccinated.

Mr Masseglia added that he spoke to IOC president Thomas Bach last week.

In France, nearly a million prioritised people have been vaccinated, but the pace of vaccination is extremely varied around the world. Some countries, including Japan, have not started yet.

The issue of vaccination of athletes also raises an ethical problem.

"It's out of the question that athletes should be given priority over other categories of population, but between now and the Games, we can assume that it is possible to have them vaccinated without penalising other people," Mr Masseglia said.

"I have taken a position in favour of vaccination, I hope that all French athletes will share this perspective."

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