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WHO is advising Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizers as coronavirus spreads, official says

People wearing protective face masks, following an outbreak of the coronavirus, are seen in front of the Giant Olympic rings at the waterfront area at Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo, Japan, February 27, 2020.

Athit Perawongmetha | Reuters

The World Health Organization said Thursday it is advising the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics and that no decision has been made to cancel the major sporting event in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

“To my understanding, no decision has or will be taken in the near term regarding the future of the Olympics,” Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said on a call with reporters. He said that WHO is working “extremely closely” with event organizers and is providing them with risk assessment and management advice.

He added that other mass gatherings, including the Olympics and the Special Olympics, proceeded during the outbreaks of Zika and SARS. “If you cast your mind back to those events, many of those events went ahead with appropriate risk management,” he said.

The remarks came after International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told Japanese media that the IOC is “fully committed” to holding the Olympics on schedule. The games are scheduled to start July 24 and run through Aug. 9.

But earlier this week, Dick Pound, a senior member of the committee and a former Canadian swimming champion, said that if it proves too dangerous to hold the Olympics this summer due to the coronavirus outbreak, organizers are more likely to cancel it altogether than to postpone or move it.

The number of coronavirus cases has consistently risen in Japan, with 186 cases and four deaths. The total number of confirmed cases globally has reached more than 81,400, with at least 2,770 deaths.

Japan’s prime minister on Thursday called for all of Japan’s schools to close for a month to help combat the spread of the virus, making Japan the second country behind China to close all schools in the face of the outbreak.

Marcel Thieliant, senior Japan economist for Capital Economics, said in a research note last week that unless the virus “spirals completely out of control” it’s unlikely that Japan would agree to canceling the Games, and postponement would simply shift the timing of the virus’ impact on Japan’s economy.

S&P Global Ratings also said last week it does not expect the Games to be postponed, based on the assumption that the virus will be contained in March. If the Olympics are postponed, the additional cost burden for Tokyo would be limited since most of the spending for the Olympics has already happened, the firm said.

The Games are set to cost a staggering $25 billion, though researchers point out that spending during the Olympics is only about 0.2% of Japan’s GDP, and much of that money is diverted from spending in other areas of tourism and recreation.

— Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report.