Pfizer will donate vaccine doses to Olympics as pandemic rages on

UKRAINE - 2021/01/01: In this photo illustration a medical syringe and vials are seen in front of the Olympic Games rings. #The World Health Organization (WHO) on 31 December 2020 lists Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for emergency use, as media reported. (Photo Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
(Photo Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Pfizer and BioNTech, the American and German pharmaceutical giants behind the world's leading COVID-19 vaccine, will provide doses of their vaccine to Olympians ahead of the Tokyo Games, the International Olympic Committee announced Thursday.

It's unclear how many doses Pfizer will supply to athletes and other Games participants. Between the Olympics and Paralympics, some 15,000 athletes and tens of thousands of others from some 200 countries will converge on Tokyo this summer.

In some countries, such as the U.S., a vast majority of adults already have access to vaccines. A vast majority of American athletes will be vaccinated well before the Olympics begin on July 23.

But as of Wednesday, just 8% of the world's population had received at least one vaccine dose. In most countries, athletes would need priority access to ensure full immunization by July. The IOC said that national Olympic committees "will work with their local governments to coordinate local distribution in accordance with each country’s vaccination guidelines and consistent with local regulations."

IOC pushes for vaccinations amid Olympic controversy

The IOC announced the memorandum of understanding with the drug companies as the pandemic rages on around the world. More-contagious variants have accelerated it. More COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed over the past 30 days than in any other 30-day period. Japan, the Olympic host country, where only 2% of citizens have been vaccinated, recently extended a state of emergency through the end of May. The Olympics, in this climate, have become hugely controversial.

Under pressure to ensure that the Games don't contribute to COVID-19 surges, the IOC has pushed national Olympic committees to ensure their athletes and officials are vaccinated. In March, the IOC agreed to buy doses of China's Sinovac vaccine for athletes, but later clarified that those doses would only be available to athletes in the two dozen countries where the Sinovac shot has been approved. (Data around its efficacy are murky.)

The IOC has said that it won't require Games participants to get vaccinated, and that those who are vaccinated will have to follow the same COVID-related protocols as those who aren't. The protocols, updated in late April, rely heavily on physical distancing, restrictions of movement and daily testing.

But vaccines will nonetheless be valuable. Any athlete who tests positive for COVID will be removed from competition. Vaccinations, of course, could help prevent or suppress outbreaks within and beyond the Olympic village.

Details of Pfizer donation murky

Its unclear, though, what impact this out-of-nowhere Pfizer agreement will have. The Pfizer vaccine has been approved in 91 countries. Supply and distribution are still ramping up in many. The IOC said that "any additional doses delivered by Pfizer and BioNTech will not be taken out of existing programs, but will be in addition to existing quotas and planned deliveries around the world." It's difficult to see how Thursday's news would have any impact unless athletes are prioritized within those distribution programs.

The IOC said Thursday that it expects "that a significant proportion of Games participants will have been vaccinated before arriving in Japan. The new [memorandum of understanding] adds to these efforts."

As for why Prizer is prioritizing the Olympics, CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement: “The return of the Olympic and Paralympic Games represents a monumental moment of world unity and peace after a grueling year of isolation and devastation. We are proud to play a role in providing vaccines to athletes and their national Olympic delegations where possible.”

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