Tokyo Olympics 'Dodged a Huge COVID Bullet' by Avoiding Superspreader Event

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have seemingly avoided becoming a COVID-19 superspreader event, experts told Newsweek.

With the Olympics held amid a state of emergency in Japan and the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant around the world, some health experts raised concerns prior to the Games that such a situation could occur.

But while more than 350 people in the Olympic bubble have tested positive—including athletes, officials and media employees—as of August 6, experts told Newsweek that the Games did not seem to have been a superspreader event based on current evidence as the spectacle nears the finish line.

"The spread of COVID-19 amongst the athletes and their officials largely isolated from the rest of Japan is rather steadily increasing instead of showing an exponential outbreak currently experienced in Tokyo and the rest of Japan," professor Maximilian de Courten, director of the Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy at Australia's Victoria University, told Newsweek.

"As such, the Games did not turn into a superspreading event, in which many people are infected at once, typically by a single individual," he said.

Hans Westerbeek, professor of international sport business at the Institute for Health and Sport Victoria University, Australia, also told Newsweek that he didn't think the Games had been a superspreader event.

"The International Olympic Committee [IOC] will be breathing a sigh of relief when the Games are over, having dodged a huge COVID bullet," said Westerbeek.

"I must concede that I have been overly pessimistic, and acknowledge that the medical planners and COVID emergency team of the local organizing committee ha[ve] done a great job in modeling and then planning for the management of athletes who test positive, and also for the departure of athletes following the completion of their event."

Westerbeek said the "no spectator" policy has been critical in preventing widespread transmission of the virus.

"With spectators, the Olympics would have been much more likely to be a superspreader event. Without spectators, and carefully executed protocols, it seems to be turning out to be a well managed COVID strategy," he said.

De Courten also points to the high level of vaccination in the Olympic Village, as well as the testing, isolation and distancing measures that have been implemented.

"Athletes in the Olympic Village are required to test daily, whereas the requirements for volunteers who have less contact with athletes are less strict. The rules are also harsher for those flying in from overseas, compared to Japanese residents," he said.

"That is reflected in the largest numbers infected with the coronavirus at the Games are amongst Japanese residents and the contractors—personnel who are contracted to provide various services—and games-concerned people, who include those affiliated with the IOC, National Olympic Committees and Olympic Broadcasting Services. This demonstrates the power of testing and isolating."

Lisa Brosseau, a former professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) School of Public Health, told Newsweek there does not appear to have been significant levels of transmission among the more than 11,000 athletes and other participants, indicating that the pre-arrival testing, daily testing and contact tracing were effective, along with requirements for athletes and others to not socialize and avoid sightseeing, in addition to other guidance.

"There wasn't a complete lack of transmission, however, and some athletes were unable to compete at all or throughout their events," Brosseau said. "As expected, there were infections among workers—both international and Japanese. The latter could have been due to community transmission, of course."

But the expert said it might be hard to detect superspreading in Japan given the high and increasing case rates in the country.

In addition, it may not be possible to detect whether transmission occurs after athletes return to their communities, given the surges related to the Delta variant taking place around the world, she said. This would make it hard to ascertain the true extent of COVID transmission linked to the Games.

De Courten said the games were largely shielded from the outbreak taking place around them: "But can the same be claimed the other way around, that the Games did not contribute to the current fifth COVID wave in Japan?"

"Officials from the Olympics claim that the rise of COVID-19 cases in Japan has nothing to do with the games and tracing the spread of the virus from infected participants is indeed likely to demonstrate that there was hardly any breakout from the Olympic Village into the Japanese population," he said.

"However, holding the Olympics might have dissuaded both, decision makers and the public from paying closer attention to control the spread of the virus than if they were not distracted by the Games. It's much harder to persuade residents to stay home and observe social distancing when their athletes are winning medals in record number."

Tokyo reported more than 5,000 COVID-19 cases on Thursday—a new record—while the city's test positivity are has climbed to around 20 percent, up from an already high 10 percent before the games.

Spectators at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
People take a photo of the National Stadium on August 1, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. During the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, spectators have not been allowed to enter the sports venues. Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images