As Beijing 2022 organizers continue to prepare for the upcoming Winter Games, they now have a new factor to consider: The omicron variant of COVID-19.
With a little more than two months to go until the start of the Beijing Olympics, health officials are working to study and understand the new variant, which was discovered in South Africa last week. But several countries have already moved to shut down their borders or restrict international travel due to omicron. And the World Health Organization has already described the overall global risk posed by the variant as "very high."
Here's what we know so far about omicron, and the potential impact it might have on preparations for the 2022 Olympics.
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What do we know about omicron?
Not much. The variant was first detected by South African scientists last week after they noticed what the country's health minister, Joe Phaahla, described as an "exponential rise" in COVID-19 cases. WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday that at least 23 countries have now reported cases of omicron. The first U.S. case was identified in California on Wednesday afternoon.
It's immediately unclear whether omicron is more transmissible or deadly than past variants, like the delta variant. And public health experts are studying its interactions with vaccines. The WHO did note, however, that "preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with omicron."
What has China said about omicron?
China had yet to report a case of the omicron variant as of Wednesday.
At a press briefing Tuesday, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, acknowledged that the omicron variant would "certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control" ahead of the Beijing Olympics. But he also indicated that China's plans for the Games have not changed.
"I’m fully confident that the Winter Olympics will be held as scheduled, smoothly and successfully," Zhao said.
The Beijing 2022 organizing committee, meanwhile, said in a statement that it has been "closely following the impact caused by the Omicron variant of COVID-19."
"Confronted by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 spread, Beijing 2022 has been acting responsibly to protect the life and health of all athletes and all stakeholders of the Olympic Family," the organizing committee said. "We have been always preparing for the worst and putting the epidemic prevention and control front and center, so that the Games can be staged safely and on schedule."
Could the Games be postponed?
It's possible but appears highly, highly unlikely.
Hosting the Olympics is a huge point of national pride in China – a pivotal opportunity to show off the country to the rest of the world, and portray itself as a global leader. This is particularly true as China faces international outcry over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims, its saber-rattling on Taiwan and, most recently, the Peng Shuai situation.
Plus, after watching one of its key regional rivals (Japan) successfully host the Summer Games amid COVID-19 just a few months ago, postponement would likely be perceived within the Chinese government as a failure.
On top of all the geopolitical considerations, there's also the potential cost and logistics of a postponement. It would be both expensive and extremely complicated to move the Games to a new date, particularly this late in the process.
Will COVID protocols at the Games change?
China has adopted a "zero COVID" approach that prompted some of the strictest COVID-19 countermeasures in the world. And its preliminary countermeasures for the Olympics are just as stringent.
The country has said every Olympic participant will be contained in a "closed loop" system, separate from the rest of the country, and undergo daily COVID-19 tests. The overwhelming majority of attendees will also likely be vaccinated; If not, they will be forced to quarantine for a whopping 21 days.
Beijing 2022 organizers could maintain that their countermeasures are already plenty strict enough to combat omicron. Or the new variant could prompt them to make the protocols even more restrictive.
Their stance will become clear soon enough; The International Olympic Committee said organizers are expected to release the latest version of their COVID-19 "playbooks" within the next week or two.
"The latest developments regarding COVID-19 reinforce the importance of all the measures included in the Playbooks, which can be further adapted if necessary to match any particular circumstances and ensure safety of all in an evolving context," the IOC said in a statement.
Will qualifying events or other international competitions be affected?
This is the most pressing question, and the answer is yes. As more countries impose travel restrictions due to omicron, it's becoming clear that those restrictions could disrupt major international sporting events.
Japan, for instance, has closed its borders to foreign visitors. And on Thursday, its skating federation made the decision to cancel the Grand Prix final – a bellwether event in Olympic figure skating – that was scheduled for Dec. 9-12. The International Skating Union said it would consider holding the event at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, in Switzerland, recently-imposed travel rules could impact pre-Olympic events in several winter sports, including Alpine and cross-country skiing.
"If travel restrictions and quarantine rules are maintained, the organization of international sporting events in Switzerland will be in danger, if not impossible," Jürg Stahl, the president of Switzerland’s national Olympic committee, said according to The Associated Press.
The Chinese Figure Skating Association also announced this week that it has postponed its national championships, which were scheduled to start Dec. 6, due to COVID-19.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Winter Olympics: Will omicron COVID variant affect 2022 Beijing Games?