WHO officials: Olympic athletes should not receive COVID-19 vaccines before world’s most vulnerable populations

World Health Organization officials indicated Monday that they do not believe Olympic athletes should receive priority access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly if it means cutting ahead of the world's health care workers and elderly population.

During a news conference at the WHO's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, a reporter asked if athletes should be prioritized in any way, with a little less than six months until the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to begin. The question followed recent comments from the president of France's national Olympic committee, who said it would be "extremely difficult" for athletes who have not been vaccinated to compete.

Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said the organization obviously wishes that everyone could be vaccinated. But, at this juncture, the focus must be on the populations that are most at risk, he said.

"We face a crisis now on a global scale, that requires front-line health workers, those older people and those most vulnerable in our societies to access vaccine first," Ryan said. "That doesn't in any way negate the desire or the will to have the Olympics and come together and celebrate a wonderful global sporting event, where all countries come together to share that. What a wonderful symbol those Games are for our shared humanity.

"However, we have to face the realities of what we face now: There is not enough vaccine, right now, to even serve those who are most at risk."

World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Program Director Michael Ryan speaks during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 virus at the WHO headquaters in Geneva on March 9, 2020. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini, AFP via Getty Images)

Ryan said the WHO will continue to provide advice to the International Olympic Committee and Japanese authorities, while noting that the final decision on COVID-19 countermeasures – and whether the Games should go ahead at all – rests with the Olympic organizers.

Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the WHO’s director-general, added that "this is not an issue about the Olympics," but rather about the global distribution of a scarce resource: COVID-19 vaccines. 

"This is in every country, in every corner, in every population of the world," Aylward continued. "There are older people everywhere. There are health care workers everywhere. We need to make sure they're protected everywhere. And right now, we have a real stretch on the available vaccines just to get into those populations and protect them."

Olympic organizers continue to profess confidence that the Tokyo Olympics will begin, as scheduled, on July 23. And they have offered no indication that they will try to help athletes get vaccinated prior to other segments of the population.

IOC president Thomas Bach has repeatedly said the first doses should be reserved for health care workers, and other vulnerable groups.

Bach has also indicated that vaccination will not be a precondition in order to attend or compete in the Games, while at the same time urging athletes to take vaccines if they are made available.

"Every athlete should look at his fellow athletes and take this into consideration," he said during a trip to Tokyo in November. "Because the vaccination is not just about the individual. It’s a protection for the entire community."

Some within the Olympic community, including longtime IOC member Dick Pound, believe the mass vaccination of Olympic athletes should be an option. In an interview with Sky News earlier this month, Pound called it "the most realistic way of going ahead."

"In Canada, where we might have 300 or 400 athletes – to take 300 or 400 vaccines out of several million in order to have Canada represented at an international event of this stature, character and level – I don't think there would be any kind of a public outcry about that," Pound told the news outlet.

Public health experts generally disagree. They argue that any effort to vaccinate Olympic athletes – who are generally young and healthy – would be ethically dubious if other at-risk portions of the global population are still awaiting their doses.

"A situation like that is going to produce tensions that are exactly the opposite of what the Olympic movement says it’s all about," Amir Attaran, an epidemiologist and professor of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa, told USA TODAY Sports last year.

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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