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A possible rapid vaccination for athletes in Tokyo raises ethical questions

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Last week, the Ministry of Youth and Sports formally requested the Ministry of Health to add Tokyo-bound Olympic athletes, coaches and support personnel from India to the priority tier of those who received the COVID-19 vaccines. It followed a similar request from the Indian Olympic Association. The Department of Sports says it has already prepared a blueprint for the two-phase vaccination campaign for athletes, which will begin tentatively in March if approved. So far, 77 Indian athletes (including two teams) have qualified / won quota places for the July Games and the latest number is likely to exceed 100. While the news in itself – vaccinating Olympic athletes – sounds like a good move, it does raise a few questions.

Should athletes get priority in the vaccine queue?

Athletes tend to fall into the low-priority segment because of their young age and excellent physical condition, after caregivers, essential workers, the elderly and those with severe co-morbidities. India launched its vaccination program on January 16 and so far an average of about 300,000 people have been vaccinated every day. With a huge vulnerable population – the goal is 250 million people to get their double shots by July – waiting for its turn, there is an ethical argument against athletes lining up.

On the other hand, the sight of elite athletes lining up for injections is a great optic – acting as a broader endorsement for vaccines and helping to build public confidence in their efficacy. This if there is a prevailing climate of hesitation about vaccines among the general population in India, including frontline workers.

What are other countries doing?

Israel, Serbia, Hungary and Lithuania are some of the countries that have already started vaccinating their Olympic athletes. Australia and New Zealand are also likely to vaccinate their athletes in time for Tokyo. The US has not yet made a public announcement about fast-tracking athletes for Covid jabs ahead of priority groups. The UK – which competes like Great Britain – is debating the ethics of the issue; a few weeks ago, the chairman of the British Olympic Committee called the idea of ​​athletes skipping the line “morally wrong”. The Italian National Olympic Committee has also said it would not ask its athletes to be vaccinated earlier than others in the country.

Is the vaccine compulsory for the Olympics?

Here’s the catch. In its “Playbook”, which sets out the guidelines for a “safe and successful” Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has stated that the vaccine “will not be mandatory” for the participation of athletes. However, the IOC has also discussed “encouraging” athletes to get vaccinated before the Games and has written a letter to the national Olympic committees about this.

The global vaccine scenario is similar to that of India: a struggle to get enough vaccine doses. Last month, Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergency Program program, said the focus at this point should be on the high-risk population worldwide: “We are now facing a global crisis that requires primary health care workers, who are older people and those who are most vulnerable to access vaccine first. That does not diminish the desire or the will to hold the Olympics … But we have to face the reality of what we are facing now There is not enough vaccine now to serve even those most at risk. “

What if an Indian athlete refuses to be vaccinated?

At this point it seems unlikely that the question will arise. The response from Indian athletes to the proposal to be vaccinated before the Olympics has so far been overwhelmingly positive. Earlier this month, at a meeting chaired by Sports Secretary Ravi Mittal and attended by India’s top badminton players, including PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and Chirag Shetty, the plan for vaccination was highlighted. When asked if he thinks Indian athletes bound in Tokyo have the right to refuse the shot, Chirag said, “We can’t say no to it … I don’t think so. plan informed. open to the idea. No timeline or consent was discussed. I mean, if we have the option to get vaccinated, we will accept it. “

There is context in Chirag’s words. Indian badminton players had a scorching time after team members tested positive during the Asian leg of tournaments in Bangkok last month. “After Saina (Nehwal) and (HS) Prannoy tested positive, our coaches were not allowed in,” said Chirag, “Then they were acquitted and Sai (Praneeth) was next, forcing his roommate Srikanth to stay out of the tournament. .. Our team was categorized as high-risk and our physios couldn’t enter the stadium nor visit them in their rooms. We couldn’t travel on the same bus as others or use the gym. We just had to play our matches and come back “Go to our rooms and sit down. It was really difficult. With a vaccine this might not have happened.”

What are the potential benefits for vaccinated athletes as they enter the final leg of pre-Olympic tournaments?

Some governments are exploring the possibility of issuing Covid vaccine passports to revive their economies, but this could again raise ethical and scientific questions. Indian Covid tracing app, Aarogya Setu, has announced integration with vaccine registry app CoWin, allowing users to download their vaccination certificates. Ultimately, digital proof of vaccination could mean that RT-PCR testing and quarantine standards are being dropped.

Equally important, the vaccine can provide athletes mental freedom from the dormant virus paranoia during travel and competitions. Such as table tennis player G Sathiyan, who has been living out of a suitcase for the past few months while playing in Poland and Japan. “Nearly half of the people directly or indirectly connected to the Polish Superliga tested positive – players, their relatives support staff, coaches,” he told ESPN. “Every other day someone tested positive and matches were rescheduled. So until the last minute you didn’t know if there was going to be a match at all. One of my opponents tested positive a few days after our match and this was just before. I was on my way. back to India. Fortunately my test result was negative. “

What’s his take on athletes getting the vaccine? “Older people should be a priority when it comes to vaccines, but in an Olympic year, athletes also deserve to be high on the list. We’re talking about a modest number of people. Maybe 300-400 including coaches and support staff. back to their families, neighbors, relatives and friends after their trips abroad, so there is a higher risk of transmission. Even if we get the vaccine, our lives may not change drastically. We will still wear masks and avoid crowded places But at least we can play the sport we love without fear. “

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