The Australian Open’s hotel quarantine program has so far been successful.

Japan is currently in the frightening grip of a third wave of coronavirus infections. Japan’s response to the pandemic up to this point has been successful, but it is beginning to waver as infections rise.

Despite this increase, President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, is adamant that the ‘2020’ Tokyo Olympics will begin on July 23 and admitted on Japanese TV that there is “no plan B”.

Because of the case spike and the obvious risk to community health that overseas travellers pose, Japanese health experts have questioned whether the Olympics should go ahead at all. With Japan having spent billions of dollars to host the flagship event, one infectious disease expert compared the Olympics taking place to a gambler chasing their losses.  

This begs the question, can Tokyo safely host the Olympics? We believe so, and the Australian Open is an excellent model – but its implementation is conditional on a few factors.

Last week, Tennis Australia chartered 17 flights of tennis players, and their entourage into Melbourne. Each person on these flights will complete 14 days of hotel quarantine and be tested for the disease. In exchange, players can train every day under strict conditions unless they are a close contact of a confirmed case.

If a close contact, the player or support staff must complete 14 days of hotel quarantine and not train. This scenario has applied to three charter flights and caused angst amongst players who pleaded that they ‘didn’t know the rules’, something which Tennis Australia disputes.

Ironically, a tennis player who made this exact complaint has this morning tested positive to coronavirus.

The politics of vaccinating athletes over vulnerable populations are politically awkward and would be extremely controversial.

If the virus is contained in hotel quarantine and community transmission is avoided, the Australian Open will be a resounding success, and Tennis Australia and the South Australian/Victorian governments should be credited. Crowds, albeit reduced, can attend one of Melbourne’s premier sporting events.  

Replicating this model for the Tokyo Olympics will be challenging, but not impossible.

For one, the number of competitors and support staff in the Australian Open is much smaller than the Olympic games. The Australian Open will have hundreds of competitors, whilst the Tokyo Olympics will have around 15,000 athletes and additional support staff. Developing a hotel quarantine system to house that many competitors is a logistical headache.

Although an athlete’s village has been built, the ethics of letting potentially infected athletes share facilities with uninfected athletes are fraught, and any super spreading event at the village could derail the games. The IOC’s current guidance is that athletes should arrive at the village 5 days before their event and leave within 42 hours after their Olympics. This policy is courting danger, particularly with increasingly virulent strains of coronavirus spreading around the world.

With Japan having already invested billions of dollars, establishing a water-tight hotel quarantine system for athletes before entering the village could be outstanding value for money.

Nevertheless, such a hotel quarantine system is futile if Japan doesn’t begin to slow and stop community transmission of COVID-19. As the Australian experience indicates, there is no point of having a hotel quarantine system if the virus is spreading in the community. If restrictions in Japan do not have the desired effect in reducing community transmission incidence, a hotel quarantine system would be ineffectual – the virus would likely find its way into the games.

Another suggestion posed is that the Olympics can operate in a ‘bubble’ where athletes are segregated from each other and the Japanese community so that the games can go ahead. In this instance, no crowds would be allowed at Olympic events, and presumably, each athlete from each sport would be segregated from one another. Even if the logistics could be worked out, it still doesn’t grapple with the ethical minefield of allowing the virus to spread from infectious athletes or support staff to the uninfected.

What about a vaccinating everyone coming to the games? Japan’s Health Minister has already ruled this out. Moreover, vaccines are being increasingly hoarded in wealthy countries, so such a policy is likely to ineffectual anyway without a radical shift in vaccine policy.

To put it bluntly, Japan’s Olympics remain in a perilous position and are unlikely to go ahead. A hotel quarantine system is probably the best way forward if the Olympics are to take place safely. Nevertheless, Japan will need to control its third wave of infections for this strategy to work. With such a large investment at stake and six months out from the games – time is of the essence. If all else fails, perhaps a multi-country hosted Olympics is the only viable option, where individual sports are played in bubbles after a mandatory quarantine period to reduce the risk.

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