Amid promising vaccine news, Tokyo tests out Olympics competition safety measures

Japan 2020

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Olympics officials test out safety measures, one of the companies working to produce a COVID-19 vaccine has announced that early data is showing promising results.

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said Monday that its vaccine may be 90% effective at preventing the virus. However, this data is early, involved 94 cases out of nearly 44,000 involved in the study, and the company cautioned that protection rate could change.

Dr. Stephen Thomas, an infectious disease specialist who has provided perspective over this past year about the coronavirus’ effect on the Olympics, was just named the lead principal investigator for that vaccine trial in New York. He will help prepare data and information from the trial to be submitted to regulatory agencies, an important step before a vaccine goes to market.

Thomas said the news about the vaccine’s effectiveness is “great, and I think it probably exceeded many people’s expectations.” To provide context, he said this year’s 2019-2020 flu vaccine has a 45% effectiveness and still “prevents a lot from getting sick, a lot of death. And the implication here (with the Pfizer vaccine) is huge. It’s big.”

However, he also reiterated that this is just a first step, and multiple steps remain to make sure the vaccine is safe.

Until then, he said people need to keep taking measures to reduce the spread, as many areas of the United States head to a third peak in cases. That means getting a flu vaccine, wearing masks, reducing one’s social circle, washing hands and staying home and talking to a doctor if people feel sick.

“Vaccine or no vaccine, people need to maintain their hope and their optimism for people to continue to do things they need to do to flatten the curve,” he said.

Safety measures taking place in Tokyo

Meanwhile, officials in Tokyo are cautiously moving forward with competitions and testing out safety measures. On Sunday, Japan held a one-day gymnastics exhibition meet. The Associated Press reports 22 athletes from Russia, China, the United States and Japan participated, and several thousand fans attended.

The non-Japanese athletes had to quarantine for two weeks and undergo daily coronavirus tests. Those in the crowd wore masks, and people had to have their temperatures checked and sanitized their hands before entering the venue. One photo showed a member of the media being sprayed with a sterilization mist as he entered the venue.

Thomas has said in the past that a major concern of the games is bringing thousands of athletes and fans together amid the pandemic. But, he said these measures — these “public health interventions” — are what need to happen to make the Games possible.

As an example, he highlighted K-12 schools who have had students return in person. He said in many cases, those situations “haven’t been a source of widespread transmission” because schools are able to make sure public health measures are being followed.

“It is possible, if you can control your environment, to drastically reduce your transmission,” Thomas said.

He said the temperature checks, sanitizing and mask-wearing were good measures in the Tokyo gymnastics competition — but said he would still suggest people continue to social distance.

Preparing for competition

Tokyo has also moved forward with opening an aquatics center, which includes a 10-lane pool, a sub pool and a diving pool. There are enough seats for 15,000 people. The International Olympic Committee says this venue was completed in February, but officials held off on its grand opening until Oct. 24.

On the athlete side, many continue to train, hoping to peak when the competition finally arrives. Sports anchor Natalie Kalibat, from Nexstar sister station WRIC in Richmond, Virginia, was a competitive diver before taking on her current role. She won the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials in the synchronized women 10m platform event. She said athletes having to adjust their schedules “at this level is huge.”

“May the best athlete win. We’re going to see a lot of athletes maybe come out of left field, you know, people that prepared themselves differently than other athletes prepared themselves for last summer,” Kalibat said.

Kalibat said she believes the U.S. Olympic team will be competitive, saying people should expect a “dominant” team.

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