A World Health Organization panel will consider whether to recommend that the Olympics and Paralympics be postponed or moved out of Rio because of Zika fears.
The Geneva-based global health organization said this week that its Zika emergency committee will reconvene on Tuesday to discuss outbreak-related issues, including the calls to move or postpone the games.
“Of course there is a lot of international concern out there, there is a lot of personal concern out there because it’s a new disease,” agency spokesman Christian Lindmeier told Reuters.
“And the best way for us to react to emotional concerns is to look at our deep science and to give clear guidance.”
The emergency committee recommended in February that WHO Director-General Margaret Chan declare Zika’s complications a public health emergency of international concern. She did so Feb. 1.
Will the committee suggest the WHO call for the Olympics to be postponed or moved? Let’s take a look at the issue.
Who is making the demand?
Since the link between the Zika outbreak in the Americas and an increase in babies born with devastating birth defects started to come into focus, there have been sporadic calls to postpone the games in Rio de Janeiro.
But the pressure really started to ratchet up when, in early May, a University of Ottawa health law professor, Amir Attaran, wrote a commentary on the issue for the Harvard Public Health Review.
“Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago. Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession,” Attaran stated.
He and others wrote an open letter to Chan asking her to press the International Olympic Committee to postpone or move the Olympics and Paralympics. The Olympics are due to run from Aug. 5-21 and the Paralympics to follow from Sept. 9-18. Currently 223 academics have signed the group’s petition. From a range of countries, a number are medical ethicists and professors of medicine.
What was the WHO’s initial response?
In a statement issued late last month, the WHO said canceling or relocating the Olympics would not have much impact on the spread of Zika. The virus is already circulating in dozens of countries, and there is substantial ongoing travel between affected countries and other parts of the world, it said.
The agency does recommend that pregnant women skip these Olympics. NBC “Today” show anchor Savannah Guthrie, who revealed Tuesday she is expecting her second child, also announced she’ll follow that advice. Guthrie is not going to the Rio Games.
What is the Olympic committee’s response to the petition? Could the games be postponed or moved?
The IOC has never given the slightest hint that Rio is anything but full speed ahead.
“We are confident the games will take place and will be very successful,” spokesman Mark Adams told reporters last weekend after an IOC executive committee meeting.
People who know what it takes to stage the Olympics say the notion of relocating the games is a non-starter.
A replacement city would have to have Olympic-caliber sports facilities for 42 sports, accommodations for more than 10,000 athletes, plus thousands of coaches and team officials from 206 countries. It would need to have hotel vacancies for tens if not hundreds of thousands of spectators.
London, the host of the last Summer Olympics, has the most up-to-date venues. They are unlikely to be sitting empty in August; the grounds of the Olympic stadium, for instance, are due to be turned into a beach for the summer.
Airline tickets to Brazil would have to be cancelled and tickets purchased for the new destination — if seats are available. Refunds would have to be offered for millions of tickets for events in Rio.
Squadrons of security workers and armies of volunteers — 70,000 worked at the 2012 London Olympics — would have be signed up and trained in a period of weeks.
Can’t. Be. Done.
“They’d have to be canceled,” Richard Pound, a decades-long IOC member from Canada and a former vice president of the organization told STAT.
Only world wars have led to the cancellation of the games since the modern Olympic era began in 1896. Five have been cancelled: the Summer Olympics of 1916 and the Summer and Winter Games in both 1940 and 1944. (The IOC moved to alternate Summer and Winter Olympics every two years after 1992.)
Pound fully expects the games to start on Aug. 5 as scheduled.
Will the games pose a threat to the health of people who attend? Will they speed the spread of Zika to parts of the world where it isn’t currently spreading?
Postponing the games might not have the desired effect, scientists from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil’s equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote in a recently published rebuttal to Attaran and his fellow signatories.
August is in Rio’s winter. The cooler (in relative terms) and dryer weather at that time of year normally leads to a drop in mosquito activity. Cases of dengue — spread by the same mosquitoes — dip in Rio in August and September.
They noted this year’s Carnival was probably a bigger event for spreading the Zika virus than the Olympics will be. Mosquito activity was higher in early February than it will be in August, and the festivities drew twice the number of visitors expected for the Olympics.
That underscores another point public health experts make when the question of Zika and the Rio Olympics comes up. International travel into and out of Zika-affected countries is happening every day. From January through April, Rio’s Galeão International Airport handled 1.4 million international travelers. The Olympics are expected to draw 500,000.
Exported Zika cases have been showing up around the world for months. The weekly tally the CDC issues of Americans infected abroad has climbed steadily since the agency started counting.
CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said the agency has studied international travel data. Last year, 239 million people traveled to the 48 countries and US territories where Zika is currently transmitting. So even if the Olympics were postponed, Frieden said, that would cut out less than 1 percent of all travel to these places this year.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s point-person for health emergencies, said he understands the concern of the people who’ve signed the petition. But he thinks the risks are low and manageable, especially if Olympics visitors are motivated to wear mosquito repellent and use condoms to prevent sexual transmission of the virus.
“There’s so much information around this. I think that what is already a low risk will be still lower,” Aylward told STAT.