Getting the shot: Possible vaccine fast-track for Tokyo athletes raises questions of ethics

Neeraj Chopra in action. MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

Last week the union ministry for youth affairs and sports formally requested the health ministry to add India's Tokyo-bound Olympic athletes, coaches and support staff to the priority category of those being administered the COVID-19 vaccines. It followed a similar request by the Indian Olympic Association. The sports ministry says it has already chalked out a blueprint for the two-phase vaccination drive for athletes, which will tentatively begin in March if cleared. So far, 77 Indian athletes (including two teams) have qualified/won quota places for the July Games and the final number is likely to cross 100. While the news in itself - getting Olympics-bound athletes vaccinated - sounds like a good move, it does raise a few questions.

Should athletes get priority in the vaccine queue?

Athletes, by virtue of their young age and prime physical shape, typically fall in the low-priority segment, after healthcare providers, essential workers, elderly and those with serious co-morbidities. India launched its vaccination drive on January 16 and, so far, an average of approximately 300,000 people have been inoculated each day. With a vast vulnerable population -- the target is 250 million people to have their double-shots by July -- waiting its turn, there is an ethical argument against athletes jumping the queue.

On the other hand, the sight of elite athletes lining up for jabs is great optics - acting as a wider endorsement for vaccines and helping boost public confidence in their efficacy. This, when there is a prevalent climate of vaccine hesitancy among the general population in India, including frontline workers.

What are other countries doing?

Israel, Serbia, Hungary and Lithuania are some of the countries who have already begun vaccinating their Olympic-bound athletes. Australia and New Zealand too are likely to vaccinate their athletes in time for Tokyo. U.S. hasn't yet made any public announcement yet over fast-tracking athletes for Covid jabs ahead of priority groups. The UK - which competes as Great Britain - is debating the ethics of the issue; a few weeks ago, the president of the British Olympic Committee called the idea of athletes skipping the queue "morally wrong". The Italian National Olympic Committee too has said that it would not ask its athletes to be vaccinated before others in the country.

Is the vaccine mandatory for the Olympics?

Here's the catch. In its "Playbook", which lays down the guidelines for a "safe and successful" Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has stated that the vaccine "will not be mandatory" for athletes' participation. However, the IOC has also spoken of "encouraging" athletes to get vaccinated before the Games and has written to national Olympic committees on this.

The global vaccine scenario is similar to India's: a scramble to procure sufficient vaccine doses. Last month, Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program was quoted as saying that, at this point, the focus should be on the high-risk population worldwide: "We face a crisis now on a global scale that requires frontline health workers, those older people and those most vulnerable to access vaccine first. That doesn't in any way negate the desire or the will to have the Olympics... But 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."

What if an Indian athlete refuses to be inoculated?

At this point, the question seems unlikely to arise. The response of Indian athletes to the proposal of being vaccinated pre-Olympics has been overwhelmingly positive so far. Earlier this month, in a meeting chaired by secretary sports Ravi Mittal, and attended by India's top badminton players, including PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and Chirag Shetty, the vaccination drive plan was brought up. Asked whether he thinks Tokyo-bound Indian athletes have the right to refuse the jab, Chirag said: "We cannot say no to it... I don't think so. During the meeting we were just briefed about the plan. Everyone seemed open to the idea. No timelines or consent was discussed. I mean if we have an option to be vaccinated, we'll take it."

There's context to Chirag's words. Indian badminton players had a torrid time after team members tested positive during the Asia leg of tournaments in Bangkok last month. "After Saina (Nehwal) and (HS) Prannoy tested positive, our coaches weren't allowed in," says Chirag, "Then they were cleared and Sai (Praneeth) was next, which forced his roommate Srikanth to sit out of the tournament. Our team was categorized as high-risk and our physios couldn't enter the stadium nor could we visit them in their rooms. We couldn't travel in the same bus as others or use the gym. We just had to play our matches and come back to our rooms and sit. It was really difficult. With a vaccine, none of this maybe would have happened."

What are the possible benefits for vaccinated athletes as they head into the final stretch of pre-Olympic tournaments?

Some governments are exploring the possibility of issuing Covid vaccine passports to revive their economies but this could again throw up ethical and scientific questions. India's Covid-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, has announced integration with vaccine registration app CoWin to allow users to download their vaccination certifications. Eventually, a digital proof of being vaccinated could mean RT-PCR tests and quarantine norms being waived.

Equally important, the vaccine could offer athletes mental freedom from the lurking virus paranoia during travel and competitions. Like table-tennis player G Sathiyan, who has been living out of a suitcase for the past couple of months while playing in Poland and Japan. "Close to half the people directly or indirectly linked with the Polish Superliga tested positive - players, their family members support staff, coaches," he told ESPN. "Every other day someone was testing positive and matches were being rescheduled. So until the last minute you didn't know if a match would happen at all. One of my opponents tested positive a couple of days after our match and this was just before I was headed back to India. Thankfully my test result returned negative."

What's his take on athletes getting the vaccine? "The elderly should be given priority when it comes to vaccines but, in an Olympic year, athletes deserve to be high on the list too. We're talking of a modest number of people here. Maybe 300-400 including coaches and support staff. Athletes return to families, neighbors, relatives and friends after their travels abroad, so there is a larger transmission risk involved. Even if we get the vaccine our lives may not change drastically. We'll still be wearing masks and avoiding crowded places. But at least we can play the sport we love without fear."