The Olympics Could Be a Covid-19 ‘Super-Evolutionary Event’

In early July, Sparrow and a bunch of other US researchers published a commentary in The New England Journal of Medicine expressing many of the same concerns Oshitani did. They went further, warning that the strategy McCloskey’s group had come up with was based on outdated information about the dynamics of the virus.

That article, in turn, echoed criticisms leveled by the World Players Association, an international group that works with athletes’ unions around the world. The WPA has argued—to little effect, having gotten no response from the IOC—that the rules consider contact on, say, the rugby pitch to be the same as contact in individual gymnastics or running track outdoors. WPA representatives criticized the shared-room situation and advice from the playbooks about opening windows once in a while for ventilation, something that might actually be impractical in Tokyo’s extreme summer heat. Also bad in the plan: allowing different kinds of masks and personal protective equipment, using phone apps for contact tracing instead of dedicated tech, and a lineup of other less-than-stellar interventions that the WPA reps said were just asking for trouble. “There’s never going to be zero risk when it comes to Covid, but there certainly could have been more mitigation put in place,” says Matthew Graham, director of legal and player relations at the WPA. “We, like the athletes we represent, hope this can be done safely, but no expense should have been spared for that.”

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McCloskey, for his part, maintains that the measures his team has put in place will keep the Village, the Games, and Japan as safe as possible. “As a general principle, I think if I’m not being criticized, I’m not doing my job properly,” he says.

If a few athletes get sick and are not able to compete—that’s sad, but it’s not an economic or epidemiologic catastrophe. But the most expensive Summer Olympics ($15.4 billion!) in history with no visitors to the host city? Well, an Olympics failing to live up to the economic and development promises of its organizers wouldn’t exactly be novel, though the actual studies on this are complicated.

The catastrophe, if it happens at all, will start out small—inside a single human cell, infected by a virus. “Whenever you get many people together, there’s the opportunity for large outbreaks—not just super-spreading events, but also multiple generations of transmission, and the infections can then be passed on when people return home,” says Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. “All such spread promotes not just new cases but also adaptation, including the movement of fitter variants to new populations.”

In other words, the problem isn’t merely someone infecting someone else, or even lots of someone elses. These potential Olympic infections could be like microbiological invasive species, given the means to travel to new populations where they might be even more dangerous than they were at home. Covid-19 has been charged by super-spreader events—occasions where many people get infected at once. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, has evolved and adapted over the past 18 months, manifesting changes to its genetic code that make it easier for the virus to spread. That’s very good for a virus whose whole existential goal is to make more of itself; it’s very bad for humans, because it might make the virus more able to infect other people, either through force of numbers or being more virologically sneaky in infecting cells, or some other mechanism altogether.

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