By Simon Denyer
September 3, 2020 at 7:58 p.m. GMT+9 The Washington Post
TOKYO — Japan’s government says it expects to vaccinate the entire country against the novel coronavirus by the middle of next year. But even if that does not happen, the organizers of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics insist the Games can proceed — perhaps with limited spectators.
“We don’t think a vaccine is a prerequisite for holding the Olympics,” Toshiro Muto, CEO of Tokyo 2020, said in an interview Monday. “It would be still beneficial if an effective vaccine is developed by next year, and we do hope that will be the case.”
With just over 10 months before the scheduled Opening Ceremonies on July 23, 2021, Muto said it would be “too optimistic to assume that the issue of the coronavirus will be a thing of the past” by next summer.
Plans for the Games appear to be developing along parallel tracks. The government says it has a deal with U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech to secure 120 million doses of its vaccine for 60 million people by June next year if clinical trials are successful.
It has agreed to buy 120 million doses of a separate vaccine from British drugmaker AstraZeneca next year, with 30 million doses to be supplied by March, the Health Ministry said.
The aim is to “ensure that the vaccine will be provided to the entire nation during the first half of 2021,” Shoji Watanabe, the head of coronavirus control in the Cabinet Secretariat, said at a news conference Tuesday.
Although Watanabe did not link the midyear target to the Olympics, Japan’s government views the Games as a priority and a chance to showcase the country’s revitalization.
At the same time, representatives of the central government, Tokyo metropolitan government and the Tokyo 2020 organizers will hold talks Friday as they start to draw up plans on how to host the Games even if the virus remains a threat.
“We think that the Olympics will be held with the coronavirus still around, so for us the biggest task is to explore and come up with necessary and effective measures to combat the coronavirus,” Muto said. “It is not only the spectators. We are discussing measures for the athletes and all the other stakeholders,” including the media, National Olympic Committees and International Federations, he added.
Muto said officials would discuss social distancing and possibly limiting spectator numbers, as well as masks and testing.
In Japan, enthusiasm for the Games has waned as the pandemic has rolled on.
A poll of nearly 13,000 companies conducted by Tokyo Shoko Research last month found 28 percent wanted the Olympics to be canceled and 26 percent said they should be postponed again, while 46 percent hoped the Games could proceed in some form.
The general public is even less enthusiastic: A Kyodo News survey in July found only 24 percent favored holding the Games next year, with 36 percent supporting a postponement and 34 percent wanting a cancellation.
Although Japan is battling a second wave of the virus, the number of deaths has been significantly lower than in the much larger United States, with around 1,300 fatalities.
Yet there are concerns that an influx of Olympic visitors — the government had hoped for 10 million — could cause a surge in infections and overwhelm the health system unless effective vaccines are widely available.
Indeed, Japan now restricts entry to travelers from more than 140 countries, and Muto said the decision on whether, how and from which countries overseas spectators could come was ultimately up to the government.
“I believe it is possible the restrictions will be eased by then,” Muto said. “Assuming they are coming, even so they would have to go through testing on their entry into the country. In addition, as to whether or not there will be a need to test them at the venues, this is not something that has been decided, but it is an issue that will be discussed.”
Japanese soccer and baseball leagues started allowing limited numbers of spectators inside stadiums in July, capping attendance at 5,000 and banning cheering, singing and shouting, as well as high-fives and alcohol sales.
The J-League will allow clapping starting Monday, but it postponed plans to increase spectator numbers as coronavirus infections surged.
“We will refer to those examples and examine to what degree we can have spectators for the Olympic Games,” Muto said. “I don’t think it’s ideal to hold the Games with no spectators, but we need to discuss how to go about limiting the number of spectators.”
If restrictions are imposed and some ticket holders are not allowed to attend certain events, they will be refunded, he said.
Muto said it would be an “utmost priority” for organizers to establish a safe environment for athletes, while special consideration would be given to ensure the health of Paralympic competitors.
Asked how Tokyo 2020 would restore public enthusiasm for the Games, Muto argued that most people still favor holding the Olympics, even if some wanted a postponement. But the tone of the event will be different.
“We believe it is not appropriate to try to hold the Olympics next year in a highly festive mood as we would have done when there were no infections of the new coronavirus,” he said.
“Instead, we think that if we overcome the coronavirus pandemic based on our experiences and host an Olympics that will serve as a model of how a global-scale event should be held, Tokyo 2020 will be remembered as historically very significant and leave a great legacy behind.”
Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.