Pfizer and its partner BioNTech announced Thursday that they would provide Covid-19 vaccine to all Olympic and Paralympic delegations headed to the Summer Games in Tokyo, vaulting them ahead of health workers, older adults, and others in countries struggling to acquire their own supplies.
The goal is to provide two doses of vaccine to all athletes, coaches, and country delegations before they arrive in Japan in July, the companies said in a statement.
“The return of the Olympic and Paralympic Games represents a monumental moment of world unity and peace after a grueling year of isolation and devastation. We are proud to play a role in providing vaccines to athletes and national Olympic delegations,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said.
The announcement comes at a time when many countries are struggling to acquire enough vaccine to protect health workers and older adults, who are at highest risk of contracting Covid-19 and, in the case of the latter, of suffering severe disease if they do.
In fact, the host nation, Japan, is trailing many of its economic peers in its vaccination efforts, having protected only about 2% of its population so far. African countries are trailing the world, with the continent only receiving 1% of the vaccines administered worldwide.
Polling has suggested most Japanese would like to see the games — which were originally scheduled for 2020 — postponed again or canceled. An online petition calling for the events to be canceled has reportedly received tens of thousands of signatures.
“This donation of the vaccine is another tool in our toolbox of measures to help make the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 safe and secure for all participants and to show solidarity with our gracious Japanese hosts,” said IOC President Thomas Bach. “We are inviting the athletes and participating delegations of the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games to lead by example and accept the vaccine where and when possible.”
Bioethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University said he feared the plan to vaccinate all delegations was a “risky fig leaf.” He noted that vaccinations would remain voluntary, and that spread of the virus remains a major concern.
“New strains are appearing in many nations that plan to be in Tokyo. The numbers of people involved in pulling this off … are staggering,” he said. “Doing the NCAA basketball tournaments was very hard, admittedly without easy access to vaccines, but the numbers in an Olympics are just astronomically tougher.”
Just how large a contingent of people the companies have promised to help vaccinate isn’t yet clear. A spokeswoman for BioNTech said the companies are in the process of coordinating with national Olympic committees to assess the need. At the last summer Olympics and Paralympics, the Rio de Janeiro Games of 2016, more than 15,000 athletes competed. But in addition to athletes, national teams consist of coaches, trainers, judges and other officials, all of whom, presumably, will need to be vaccinated to travel to Japan.