The Tokyo Olympics are set to open in just over three months. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Tokyo Olympics are set to open in just over three months. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Canadian athletes, coaches to get COVID-19 vaccine doses donated ahead of Tokyo

Pfizer and BioNTech are donating COVID-19 doses to inoculate athletes and officials preparing for the Olympics

Canadian athletes and officials applauded Thursday’s news that Pfizer and BioNTech are donating COVID-19 doses to inoculate athletes and officials preparing for the Tokyo Games.

The Olympics and Paralympics are happening, they said. They’ll be far safer for everyone if participants are vaccinated.

“Before the vaccine roll-out, I was quite worried from a global standpoint, the Olympics are bringing in thousands and thousands of people, and it looked like it was going to be a COVID petri dish,” said Erica Gavel, a member of Canada’s women’s wheelchair basketball team. ”Now it looks like things are moving in the right direction, to say the least.”

The Canadian Olympic Committee said it believes it will have access to donated vaccine doses from Pfizer and BioNTech as part of an IOC initiative. Delivery of doses is set to begin this month to give Olympic delegations time to be fully vaccinated with a second shot before arriving in Tokyo for the Games, which open on July 23.

David Shoemaker, CEO and secretary-general of the COC, says his organization will work with government agencies to confirm details of the roll-out.

“We were happy to learn from the IOC that Pfizer and BioNTech will donate vaccine doses for Tokyo 2020 Games participants. In Canada this represents approximately 1,100 people and will add an important layer of protection for Canadian athletes in the lead up to and during the Games,” Shoemaker said in a statement.

“The Olympic Games hold special meaning for the millions of Canadians who will be inspired by the resilience and determination of Canadian athletes this summer in Tokyo. As most provinces begin vaccination of the general population, this announcement will help more Canadians receive vaccinations quicker.”

The COC had steadfastly said Canadian athletes wouldn’t jump the vaccine cue.

“It’s fantastic news,” said Athletics Canada’s CEO David Bedford. ”Athletes are so thrilled to put Canada on their chest and represent all of us, that we owe them an obligation to try and keep them safe.”

It’s unknown how many Canadian athletes would benefit from this initiative. The COC’s chief medical officer, Dr. Mike Wilkinson, told The Canadian Press last week that with the pace of Canada’s vaccine roll-out, he expected the entire team to have received at least the first vaccine dose before Tokyo. Alberta, for example, is booking vaccines for people aged 12 and up starting Monday.

Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe tweeted a photo Thursday of her first dose appointment secured — independent of the IOC’s program. Other athletes have been able to access first doses elsewhere in Canada, while numerous Canadian athletes and coaches have been vaccinated while competing or training in the U.S.

Canada’s men’s field hockey captain Scott Tupper, who received his jab through work — he’s an assistant coach at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn. — said Thursday’s news was “great to hear.

“I think that anyone who believes in the Olympic Games and wants to see a successful event take place, agrees that vaccine access for competing athletes — Canadian and otherwise — is a positive step towards all nations coming together this summer in the safest way possible,” he said.

The IOC has said athletes do not have to be vaccinated for the Games. As of Thursday, 3.1 per cent of the Canadian population had been fully vaccinated.

The prospect of athletes jumping the cue is a hot-button topic in Canada, particularly while a third wave is ravaging parts of the country. The response on social media Thursday was overwhelmingly negative, with tweets about “privileged athletes” and “misplaced priorities.”

Race walker Evan Dunfee said it’s unfair to attack athletes, “like we had anything to do with this.”

“If people want to be mad they should be mad at the IOC and these mega-medical corporations. And no-one is getting outraged that the U.S. is vaccinating all their healthy people while people in India die,” said Dunfee, a world bronze medallist.

“It’s not the best use of global supplies of vaccine. But the Olympics going ahead isn’t smart either. At the end of the day, that the athletes are being held responsible in the eyes of some in the public, is incredibly disheartening to me.”

Bedford pointed out the Olympic vaccines would be incremental to what the pharmaceutical companies are delivering to countries.

“Anybody who says they should donate them to India or teachers, I get it, I would not argue with that. I understand, it’s very personal. But I also believe that these athletes and the support staff is protected. And fortunately, the good news is that Pfizer and BioNTech have said this isn’t coming out of any allocations to countries.”

Swimming Canada’s high-performance director and national coach John Atkinson said he welcomed the news.

“Let’s leave nothing to chance,” he said. “Having a fully vaccinated team, along with all the well thought out protocols from the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee, makes complete sense to me.”

Anti-Games sentiments, meanwhile, have been gaining ground in Japan, where just under two per cent of the population has been vaccinated. Almost 80 per cent of Japanese citizens in polls say they want the Olympics cancelled or postponed, and a petition titled “Cancel the Tokyo Olympics to protect our lives” has quickly gained tens of thousands of signatures.

Paralympic sprinter Marissa Papaconstantinou said vaccinating athletes benefits not only the Canadian team and their respective communities they’d be returning home to after the Games, but countries that don’t have the same access to vaccines, and the people of Japan, who will play host to some 15,000 athletes from more than 200 countries.

“You have an Olympic village with thousands of people living in like close quarters, it could be a recipe for disaster if a large chunk of people weren’t vaccinated,” said Papaconstantinou, who is doing a required quarantine in Toronto after returning home from San Diego.

“These Games are happening regardless of if everyone’s vaccinated or not.”

She pointed out the Japanese are already reeling in the economic fallout of hosting a postponed Games without the level of tourism they would have benefited from.

“At least they won’t have to worry about also dealing with COVID outbreaks, hopefully,” she said.

It’s the second major vaccination deal for the International Olympic Committee. An agreement was announced in March between the IOC and Olympic officials in China to buy and distribute Chinese vaccines ahead of the Tokyo Games and next year’s Beijing Winter Games.

The new Pfizer offer gives the IOC greater coverage worldwide ahead of Tokyo with most countries — including Canada — yet to authorize emergency use of Chinese vaccines.

“We are inviting the athletes and participating delegations of the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games to lead by example and accept the vaccine where and when possible,” IOC president Thomas Bach said in a statement.

The Pfizer donation followed talks between the firm’s chairman and CEO, Albert Bourla, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

The IOC said any vaccination program must be done “in accordance with each country’s vaccination guidelines and consistent with local regulations.”

The IOC-China vaccine deal includes two doses being made available to the general public for each dose received by an Olympic participant in that country.

The Spanish Olympic Committee said Thursday the nearly 600 members of its delegation travelling to Japan will start being vaccinated with Pfizer doses this month. Other countries, including Australia, South Korea and Italy, have also been making arrangements to vaccinate their teams.

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