TOKYO – It is premature to think the novel coronavirus outbreak will further delay the Tokyo Olympics, which have already been postponed a year, Brian McCloskey, an expert on global health security and outbreak prevention told Reuters.
Under increasing pressure from athletes, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo Games organisers last month postponed the 2020 Games for one year as the coronavirus spread, shutting down global sport.
Yet as countries try to beat back the pandemic, with experts predicting a vaccine is still 12-18 months away, questions have begun to surface as to whether a year's delay is sufficient time to stage the Games in a safe environment.
"I think that's probably a little bit premature in the sense that we've got 15 months more of planning and preparing for the Olympics in 2021," McCloskey said. "So, I think it's premature to say it's unrealistic (that the Olympics cannot be held in 2021).
"Clearly, having a vaccine would be extremely helpful, not just for the Olympics, but for all of us. But even without a vaccine I think there are other mitigation measures we will look at to make sure we can run the Games safely.
"So, it's a challenge, but I'd say it's too soon to say it can't happen."
The number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in Japan rose to 10,000 on Saturday, public broadcaster NHK said, just days after a state of emergency was extended to the entire nation in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
Just over 200 people have died from the virus in Japan.
"This year for Tokyo, it got to the point where the amount of mitigation that would have been needed was more than we could ask the Japanese government to do when the Japanese government needed to be focusing on looking after its population," said McCloskey, a member of the World Health Organization Novel Coronavirus-19 Mass Gatherings Expert Group.
"But that could well have changed by next year. So, it's quite possible that the outbreak will be at a level where it's manageable without any particular risk.
"Or it may be that the vaccine arrives, it may be there's treatment available. So, we just need to think through the options and not jump to too many conclusions too quickly."
McCloskey's wait-and-see approach sounds similar to the one taken by the IOC before it decided to postpone the Games amid mounting criticism.
Athletes were angry at being left in a state of limbo by the IOC and Tokyo organisers and while the postponement has provided a cushion, the clock is once again ticking.
Sports leagues and federations around the world are preparing to emerge from the outbreak and return to action with most seemingly resigned to the fact they will be played in empty arenas and stadiums until it is safe for fans to come back.
"So, we can run through to this time next year," said McCloskey, looking ahead to a 2021 Summer Games. "After that it gets more problematic because people have spent a lot of money, athletes have to make up their mind whether they can come or not.
"So, it gets more and more difficult the closer you get. But I'd say there's a willingness and an enthusiasm to make sure it happens properly.
"So, people will try hard and I think they'll hang on to the last minute to see whether it's safe to go."