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Will the coronavirus cancel the Olympics?

9Health Expert Dr. Payal Kohli weighs in on what might cause a cancellation of the 2020 summer Olympics.

COLORADO, USA — With more countries now experiencing a coronavirus outbreak, some offered speculation that the summer Olypmics scheduled to begin in Tokyo on July 24 may be canceled as well.

A spokesman for the Japanese government on Tuesday told the Associated Press that the International Olympic Committee is going ahead as planned with the Tokyo Olympics. 

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9Health Expert Dr. Payal Kohli offers a medical perspective on what might go into a decision to cancel the Olympics.

Have the Olympics been canceled before for health concerns?

Historically, the Olympics were only been cancelled during wartime – which was during World Wars I and II. And, in 2016, despite a Zika outbreak, the Olympics were not canceled in Brazil. However, the course of the Zika illness was significantly less severe than the coronavirus. And of course, the financial implications of cancelling the Olympics are large, with a cost of several billion dollars.

What do you think will happen with respect to the Olympics this year?

The situation with the coronavirus is rapidly changing and evolving.  At this time, it is hard to say today whether the Olympics should be canceled, and this decision will really depend on the course the virus ends up taking. However, there are a few scenarios that are possible.

Scenario #1: Coronavirus continues on its current trajectory — Olympics will likely get canceled.

If the viral activity continues along this trajectory, an Olympic event would create global spread of the virus and could be disastrous, especially if no change in vaccine or change in antiviral therapy emerges by then. With participants, visitors and spectators coming to the Olympics from all over the world, if the virus is not contained, such an international event could help to propagate the spread of the virus all over the world. So, if the situation with coronavirus in May is as it is today, there is a strong possibility that the Olympics will get canceled.

Scenario #2: Coronavirus activity abates as the weather becomes warmer and Olympics may continue as scheduled if virus is contained.

The change in season with the arrival of warmer weather could help to contain the virus. We know that many viruses (like the flu) follow seasonal variation with less spread during warmer months. The SARS virus, which is also part of the coronavirus family and is genetically most similar to COVID-19, had an outbreak that started in November 2002 and peaked in March with containment by July 2003. It was thought to be a winter/spring virus and like flu, spread was probably lower in the summer months. We can hope this happens with COVID-19 and we may be able to contain it and continue with the Olympics as planned.

Scenario #3: Coronavirus vaccine developed and is effective (unlikely), and Olympics may continue as scheduled.

Although the development of the vaccine is being “fast-tracked”, the likelihood that it will be ready for widespread use in just a few short months is less likely. However, if a vaccine did happen to be ready and demonstrated efficacy in preventing transmission of the virus, it would bode well for continuing on with the Olympics as scheduled.

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