Harvard Public Health Review: The Olympics Have to be Postponed, Moved or Canceled Because of Zika

By Tully Corcoran

The outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil is so severe that the Olympic Games should not go on as scheduled, according to the Harvard Public Health Review.

HPHR lays out a series of arguments against playing the Games as scheduled in August, but the main takeaway is that the Zika outbreak in Brazil is more severe than previously thought, and that hosting the Olympics there could result in a worldwide outbreak.

"All it takes is one infected traveler: indeed phylogenetic and molecular clock analyses establish that Brazil’s cataclysmic outbreak stems from a single viral introduction event likely between May and December 2013.9  A few viral introductions of that kind, in a few countries, or maybe continents, would make a full-blown global health disaster.   Scientists can disagree on how much the mass migration of 500,000 foreigners will accelerate the virus’s global spread and make the pandemic worse—but none can possibly argue that it will slow it down or make things better."

Further, the HPHR explains that scientists need time to prepare vaccines an antiviral drugs to combat Zika, but that sending half a million visitors into the heart of the Zika outbreak will accelerate the spread of the virus and work against those efforts.

"Fourth, when (not if) the Games speed up Zika’s spread, the already-urgent job of inventing new technologies to stop it becomes harder.  Basic Zika research is already on the fast track, and with time, the odds are excellent that scientists can develop, test and prove an effective Zika vaccine, antiviral drug, insecticide, or genetically-engineered mosquito.  But by spreading the virus faster and farther, the Games steal away the very thing – time – that scientists and public health professionals need to build such defenses."

So far, the International Olympic Committee is going off what it hears from the World Health Organization, which hasn’t recommended travel bans, according to the Associated Press.

"“The clear statements from WHO that there should be no restrictions on travel and trade means there is no justification for canceling or delaying or postponing or moving the Rio Games,” Dr. Richard Budgett, the IOC’s medical director, told The Associated Press. “The IOC will continue to monitor the situation very closely and work with the WHO, and we’re confident as we’ve been advised by the experts that the situation will improve over the next three months.”"

Among other things, the Zika virus causes birth defects in unborn babies, and pregnant women have been advised to avoid Brazil.

The author of the HPHR report is a lone Canadian professor named Amir Attaran, but he is not alone in his general sentiment. Other academics in recent months have urged the IOC to reconsider its plans.

At this point, that appears unlikely.