Will coronavirus concerns affect the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo?

It’s a possibility that cannot be ignored.

The Japanese Organizing Committee and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have made it clear that every effort is being made for the Games to unfold without a hitch.

A joint task force involving the IOC, Tokyo 2020, the host city of Tokyo, the government of Japan, and the World Health Organization (WHO) was created in mid-February to monitor the coronavirus outbreak. In a statement released on Tuesday, Mar. 3, the IOC executive board reiterated their commitment to the success of the Tokyo Games, encouraging “all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.”

But concerns over the virus’s impact on Tokyo 2020 remain high.

The outbreak has already caused several Olympic qualifiers to be moved or postponed. The latest, announced Tuesday, sees the final baseball qualifier, previously scheduled for April, moved to June. Qualifiers in basketball, golf, track and field, and badminton, among other sports, have also been rescheduled.

Now, there are mumblings of postponing the Games altogether should the number of coronavirus cases continue to rise.

In Japanese parliament, Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto said that Toyko’s contract with the IOC states the Games must be held in 2020, but does not specify the dates, reported Deadline on Tuesday, cuing the possibility of shifting the timeline from summer to later in the year.

The Tokyo Games are slated for July 24 to August 9th.

Worldwide, coronavirus cases continue to increase by the thousands every day. The latest statistics indicate that there are over 92,000 known cases around the world with a count of some 3,200 deaths. Evidence of the virus has been found in over 77 countries and territories. Mainland China, South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan are the worst affected.

In the United States, one death has turned to six as of this writing and the focal point began and continues in Washington, with a spattering of more cases throughout the country. No deaths have been reported in Canada or Mexico, to date.

The WHO has declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency internationally. It has not yet, however, considered a pandemic (an epidemic of a disease that has spread worldwide).

What is the Coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe respiratory diseases, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). 

The novel coronavirus at the center of the current outbreak is a new strain that was first detected in Wuhan, China and had not been previously identified in humans.

Symptoms of infection include coughing, fever, shortness of breath, respiratory symptoms, and difficulties breathing. In severe cases, pneumonia (inflammation of the lung tissue), severe acute respiratory syndrome, and kidney failure may develop and even death.

Older people and those with health issues are at highest risk of complications, as well as the very young whose immune systems have not fully developed. Most “healthy” and younger people don’t seem to be as severely affected.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they can be passed from animals to humans or from humans to humans (within a radius of six feet). Specifically, the virus is spread by “droplet transmission”—an infected person passes on the virus through coughing or sneezing. It may also spread by direct contact, then touching your hand(s) to your mouth, nose or eyes.

The incubation period for the virus runs from as little as two to as many as 14 days, in general.

So what now?

The global impact of the coronavirus is already being felt in the economy, causing delays in shipments from aboard, pharmaceutical drug shortages and stock market losses. Whether the Tokyo 2020 will fall victim to the virus too remains to be seen.

Only three Olympics have been cancelled—in 1916, 1940 and 1944 during the World Wars.

A celebration of sport, the Olympics is a chance to bring over 200 countries together in harmony. But does it make sense to have thousands of people from every corner in the world congregating in a hotbed of a global viral outbreak? In a New York Times article, Yasuyuki Kato, professor of infectious diseases at the International University of Health and Welfare in Narita, Japan, said that Japan could act as “a hub to disseminate the virus to other countries.”

The hope is that by the end of May, when a final decision must be made, the outbreak will have abated, and the Olympics can return to business as usual. The spread of viruses lessens during the warmer months, in general, and a major decline in the virus is predicted by July.

Until then, however, regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and avoiding close contact with sick people is Tokyo 2020’s best hope.