Publish date: 14 February 2024

A new study published last month in The Lancet highlights how carefully planned public health measures including a widespread testing programme prevented spread of Covid-19 during the 2020 Olympics (held in 2021). 

The paper– led by UCLH and UCL infectious diseases consultant Prof Sir Alimuddin (Ali) Zumla and Dr Brian McCloskey of Chatham House – outlines how mass gathering events can be held safely even in the context of a raging infectious disease pandemic 

When Covid-19 began to spread in early 2020, most of the world’s mass gatherings sporting and religious events were cancelled, postponed, or scaled down. This included postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. 

The decision to hold the Games in 2021 prompted concern that the event could facilitate the spread of the disease – at that time still considered a global public health emergency with the new SARS-CoV2 Delta variant evolving rapidly and COVID-19 vaccinations were not available worldwide.

However, as outlined in the paper – the study data from an international group of public health experts from the UK, Japan, Switzerland and the US – the Games were able to go ahead safely thanks to carefully planned and executed public health measures developed by the Japan Olympic officials and event organisers across nations. 

These measures included: 

  • a ‘closed loop’ system where Games participants and the general public were separated, with movement only between pre-agreed locations via dedicated transport 

  • social distancing and compulsory mask wearing 

  • equipping shared accommodation with effective ventilation systems 

  • pre-departure testing before athletes and spectators arrived at the Games, and daily testing using two diagnostic tests, and testing prior to leaving the Games. 

The theory was that the faster an infection is detected, the quicker one can quarantine the infected person so that they don’t go on to infect others. Since COVID-19 can spread to others before the disease can be detected by the tests, to break the cycle of spread, safety plans included testing people who had been in close contact with a person who tested positive.  

Thanks to these measures, the rate of Covid-19 was kept extremely low at 0.02% of attendees – and people travelling home after the Games did not carry Covid-19 back to their countries. 

The Games were heralded as a huge success with several important lessons for holding mass gathering events during epidemics, and the same measures were put in place for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. By this time, vaccines were widely available so also formed part of the strategy to prevent Covid-19 spread. 

These measures again proved hugely successful – with a very low infection rate at the Beijing Games. 

Prof Zumla said: “Our study showed that it’s possible to prevent the rapid spread of infectious diseases with epidemic potential at mass gathering events. It also highlights that global co-operation and advanced planning through multi-national pooled expertise, with everyone working together with ‘unity of purpose’, is required to have impactful outcomes.” 

Dr McCloskey said: “It’s been a pleasure working with Sir Ali Zumla and colleagues. It is gratifying to note that our work together in mass gatherings medicine – going back to the London 2012 Olympics – has placed the UK at the forefront of mass gathering planning. Looking forward, we can say that future events, including the upcoming Olympics in Paris, we can be more confident that outbreaks of Covid-19 and other respiratory infections will not unduly disrupt the Games.” 

Read the paper: The Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympic Games held during the COVID-19 pandemic: planning, outcomes, and lessons learnt in The Lancet.