30 May 2021

Michael Baker: 'Staging the Olympics is a very bad idea'

From Sunday Morning, 7:45 am on 30 May 2021

Staging the Olympics in Tokyo as planned this year is a “very bad idea”, epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says.

“I have the same view, as I think most public health and workers in the medical community, that staging the Olympics now is a very bad idea for obvious reasons.

“[Olympic Games] require a huge amount of international travel and mass gatherings, and these are the opposite of what we need to be doing during a pandemic,” Prof Baker told Jim Mora.

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker has won the 2020 Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize.

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker has won the 2020 Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize. Photo: University of Otago

The Olympics were postponed last year, but if anything, the situation is worse in 2021, he says.

“Arguably the situation is now much worse, particularly in Japan which now is battling its fourth major wave. It's got more infectious variance.

“There was an article that just came out in the New England Journal of Medicine that just pointed out how poor their preparations are to protect the athletes and the teams in Japan.”

Japan has no plans for border quarantine and athletes will be staying three to a room, Prof Baker says, and vaccinations will not be required.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, he describes the world’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic as a mixed bag. Vaccine rollout, for much of the world, remains very low, he says.

“If we assume that we need to reach 60 or 70 percent [vaccination] coverage, the global coverage is standing at about 10 percent who received at least one dose of vaccine.

“At the moment, we're looking at 1.7 percent in Africa and 5.5 percent in Asia. The good news is that in those countries that have got high coverage, and I think the US is approaching 50 percent. In the UK about 57 percent of people have had at least one dose of vaccine, we are seeing cases dropping and deaths dropping very markedly.”

New Zealand and Australia are looking at achieving similarly high coverage to the US and UK by the end of the year but “unfortunately, it's still so unequal,” Prof Baker says.

Some experts are saying that Covid-19 will eventually attenuate and we will learn to live with it as a manageable infection, but this is not guaranteed.

“If we look at diseases like smallpox and polio, measles, rubella, we don't want to rely on you just being exposed to this infection as a child, we actually use vaccines to eliminate transmission and we have elimination goals, or have achieved elimination, in the case of smallpox.”

Prof Baker agrees that we must not rely solely on vaccines as a pathway out of the pandemic

“We shouldn't just rely on vaccines and a view that we will be able to live with coronavirus in the future.

“It may be that endemic infection is not the best approach and maybe better to think about what New Zealand's doing ... that is the idea of progressive elimination.”

We can't guarantee that Covid will turn out to be a mild infection that we can happily live with, he says, as this hasn’t been the case with SARS and MERS.  

“The other thing is that it's constantly evolving and we don't know if some of the variances may also be viruses that we wouldn't want to live with.

“And we're not sure about the level of long-term effects, the long Covid syndrome, how common that will be.

“So, we might decide, just as we have with other diseases, that the vaccines are so effective, and the effects of trying to live with this virus are so severe, that we might choose to eliminate it.”

Some flawed early responses to the pandemic were coloured by assumptions the virus would behave like influenza, Prof Baker says.

“We're just seeing that interesting testimony coming out of the UK now about how the consensus there was that herd immunity was the preferred strategy for the UK early on.

“And that turned out to be a disastrous miscalculation with this particular virus. And so, because of the longer incubation period we see with this virus, five to six days, compared with influenza which is one to two days, and also the impact of all of these control measures that are being rolled out around the globe, we're seeing a very slow-moving pandemic wave or multiple waves crossing the planet, and that's creating very different threat from influenza.”

 The Covid-19 pandemic offers many lessons for how to handle future outbreaks, he says.

“I think this is where you may have seen the recent report of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response that was co-chaired by Helen Clark.

“That really had a huge number of really important recommendations for how we have to build up our global capacity.

“Particularly we need a highly functional World Health Organisation because that's really the only way we can get the sort of multilateral engagement in every corner of the globe, to actually allow us to detect these outbreaks really early and manage them.”