Beijing 2022: Can We Hold the Olympics Without a Vaccine?

There are growing concerns that the rising number of COVID-19 cases in other parts of the world and the lack of a vaccine could force delays or even cancellations to both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.

On September 20, at the Great Wall in Beijing, Chinese officials celebrated the 500-day countdown to the country’s first-ever Winter Olympic Games.

According to International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, arrangements for the games are “on track and going well”, with a recent technical report from the IOC Coordination Commission praising the progress being made by BOCOG, despite the difficult challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite the difficulties over the last months, we are happy to recognise the big advance of the Beijing 2022 project,” IOC Coordination Commission Chair Juan Antonio Samaranch said on September 7. “The team has been extremely proficient and capable of delivering the progress in the organization of the Games.”

COVID-19 shutters Olympic construction

Those difficulties began in January this year when coronavirus first hit the country, delaying work in the Olympic host cities of Beijing and Zhangjiakou as they attempted to fight the virus.

Projects such as the National Speed Skating Oval—known locally as The Ice Ribbon—were shuttered for months, with construction workers and supply chains blocked as the capital locked down to control COVID’s spread.

But as the virus waned through March and April, activity quickly returned to the abandoned sites. Beijing’s skating oval, the only major urban facility being built for the games, has seen construction return to normal, with a crew of 800 construction workers working to ensure the project will be completed on time by the end of the year.

Transport facilities for the games—a crucial element needed to service visitors and competitors between the two cities—have also seen building work return to pre-pandemic levels, resulting in nine out of ten transport facilities in the city of Zhangjiakou being completed. This includes a high-speed rail line between it and Beijing, shortening travel times for the 200KM journey from three to one hour.

In the hospitality sector, preparations have neared completion at a number of venues, including the Swiss Alp-inspired Ice and Snow Town at Chongli Ski Resort, a key leisure area fitted with newly-built hotels, restaurants and other sporting facilities.

Test events still to be decided

This flurry of activity has reassured the IOC and Zhang Jiandong, Beijing vice-mayor and executive vice-president of BOCOG, that construction will be completed on time, and that test events can begin in earnest.

When those test events will eventually begin, however, is still undecided.

While China has successfully contained the virus inside its borders, much of the world is still coming to terms with a potential second-wave. Israel has become the first country to implement a second national lockdown, while in the UK, households are only allowed to meet in groups of six or less. Cases in the US also continue to increase, with the New York Times reporting on September 15 that case numbers have surged once again in the Midwest, despite declining in other areas of the country.

IOC Coordination Commission Chair Samaranch admitted at the end of July that the measures currently in place to help countries curb the virus spread, and the number of increasing cases, could severely impact the ability for China to host test events, which would cause delays.

“COVID-19 impacts related to travel restrictions, visa requirements and quarantine measures could pose challenges for international experts, officials and athletes to travel to China for the 2020/2021 winter test event season,” Samaranch wrote in a report delivered to the IOC Session in July.

The vaccine could be a key for Beijing 2022

A delay to test events would have a significant impact on Beijing 2022’s start-date, but there are other issues beyond the BOCOG’s control that could also scupper plans to host the event on time.

The Tokyo Olympics has become increasingly problematic for both the IOC and BOCOG, having already been moved from its original date this year. Tokyo is now expected to be held just 6 months before Beijing’s event, and any further delay would be a logistical nightmare for the IOC.

IOC member Dick Pound fuelled these concerns in July during a phone interview with Reuters, stating: “Taking the political side out of it for the moment say there is a COVID problem in July and August next year in Tokyo, it is hard to imagine there is not going to be a knock-on effect in the same area five months later.”

The IOC has since distanced itself from Pound’s views, insisting Beijing 2022 must go-ahead, but his comments highlight the very-real problem of how to stage a successful and safe Games when coronavirus cases continue to rise, and a vaccine has not yet been produced.

The development of a COVID-19 vaccine will be “gratefully influential” in hosting the Olympics in both Tokyo and Beijing, according to Bach, and appears the closest thing the IOC has to a silver bullet that can help achieve a global return to normality, and a safe Olympics.

With billions of dollars being spent by governments to find a COVID-19 vaccine, recent progress suggests scientists are getting closer. There are now 30 vaccines currently undergoing human trials across the world, with nine of them being developed by Chinese companies.

In China, according to Zheng Zhongwei, head of China’s COVID-19 vaccine development task force, trials are progressing quicker, with those in high-risk jobs or working abroad being administered with potential vaccines to speed-up the research process. On September 15, Wu Guizhen, head of biosafety at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), made the encouraging announcement that she expects a vaccine to be available as early as November or December, telling Chinese broadcaster CCTV: “It will be very soon. The progress is currently very smooth.”

Wu herself took one of the experimental vaccines in April after receiving approval by the CDC, telling CCTV: “In the past few months I have felt very good. There’s been no change. And when I received the vaccine there was no local pain.”

With just under 500-days left until the opening ceremony, Beijing is on track to deliver one of the most memorable and exciting Winter Olympics’ in the IOC’s 98-year history. But how many athletes and spectators are able to witness these Games, may have less to do with the Beijing organizing committee, and more with the scientists and their quest for a COVID-19 vaccine.