Will the Olympics be canceled because of Omicron?

Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via AP

A sequel to yesterday’s post about disruptions in the sports world. Never mind whether the NFL playoffs will be held on schedule. What about the Olympics coming soon to Beijing, which all right-thinking people agree shouldn’t be held in Beijing in the first place?

There are two Chinese nationalist imperatives in direct conflict here. The CCP desperately wants the Olympics to be held on schedule as an international celebration of China’s emergence as a world power. But they’re also heavily invested in the image they’ve created of a country that’s conquered COVID in contrast to slovenly western countries where the virus spreads unchecked. China is one of the few nations left in the world following a “zero COVID” policy in which the detection of a single case can trigger widespread lockdowns locally. The lack of cases there supposedly “proves” the superiority of China’s system of governance. Do they want to risk undermining that claim by inviting in international media at a moment when they’re in jeopardy of being overrun by a new variant?

What does China do if there’s a massive outbreak over the next month, with the Games set to start in early February? Forge ahead to prove that it won’t be daunted by COVID and risk international embarrassment if the virus begins spreading among athletes? Or postpone the Games and admit that its “zero COVID” policy has been laid waste by Omicron?

Megan McArdle is thinking ahead:

Yeah, how about that? A study out of Hong Kong this week found that, among 25 people immunized with two doses of China’s vaccines, not a single one had neutralizing antibodies against Omicron. People with two doses of Pfizer didn’t fare much better, with just five of 25 showing neutralization abilities. But other studies have suggested that two doses of Pfizer are still 70 percent effective against severe illness caused by the variant. It’s anyone’s guess whether people inoculated with Sinovac and Sinopharm, China’s main vaccines, will do as well.

And McArdle’s point about China being “immunologically naive” is well taken. The down side of an effective “zero COVID” policy — assuming you believe the CCP’s claim that COVID hasn’t spread in China over the last 20 months — is that it prevents any meaningful degree of natural immunity from building among the population. Even if the Chinese vaccines do poorly, a nation with lots of natural immunity (like South Africa) might be able to fend off Omicron without difficulty. But China doesn’t have much natural immunity if Beijing is to be believed. So if the vaccines don’t work and Omicron turns out to be less mild than scientists fear, what sort of outbreak are they potentially looking at come February?

A third dose of China’s vaccine presumably will provide some benefit, as third doses of Pfizer and Moderna do. But as of this week, just 10 percent or so of the Chinese population has been boosted. People with three doses aren’t immune from infection either; plenty of confirmed cases of Omicron have already come from those who’ve been boosted. If China’s goal really is “zero COVID,” i.e. driving cases down to practically nothing, there are no pharmaceutical tools to get them there. It’s lockdowns or bust.

Will China proceed if the country is mired in a gigantic wave of illness so long as it’s not serious illness?

Even a mild variant could threaten hospital capacity if it spreads aggressively enough. Would the CCP want to hold the Olympics in the glare of international media coverage if it’s potentially facing having to build field hospitals, a la February 2020, to cope with the crush?

Omicron is already there, by the way. Despite China’s best efforts, two cases have already been acknowledged by Beijing. Even before the new variant arrived, their “zero COVID” measures required factories near outbreaks to be immediately shut down, certain businesses to close, and cities of hundreds of thousands of people to enter lockdown without warning. This report was written two weeks before Omicron was identified, when the “only” threat in China was Delta:

In the case of new scrutiny on imports, scientists widely believe that they will do little to keep people from getting infected. Amid a fresh Covid-19 outbreak in the port city of Dalian, Chinese officials this week ordered businesses there that use imported frozen foods to stop their operations.

In a neighboring Hebei Province, officials tested hundreds of packages after several workers at a children’s clothing factory were found to have Covid-19. In Guangxi, a province 1,200 miles to the south of Hebei, officials went even further, testing every person who had touched or even received a package from the factory…

Officials have also continued to enforce lockdowns to address occasional breakouts. Entire cities have been shut down at a moment’s notice. One city in the southwest has been locked down four times in the past year. About 30,000 visitors to Shanghai’s Disneyland had to stay and get tested this month before being allowed to leave.

“In Zhejiang province, the site of a new outbreak of almost 300 cases, more than half a million people have been ordered to stay home and another 100,000 have been sent to quarantine facilities,” reports WaPo. In Shangyu, an outbreak of around a dozen cases at a funeral led to all residents being ordered to stay home and all cars to stay off the roads. Those measures might have been able to contain Delta. But if Omicron is as irresistibly contagious as scientists fear then it seems poised to outrun even the most draconian mitigation tactics of a totalitarian government.

China is assuring Olympic participants that the Games will be held in a “closed loop,” i.e. a bubble in which the competition will be isolated from the rest of the country. But even one gap in that bubble could lead to uncontrollable spread. And as I said up top, a COVID-free Games that takes place while the rest of the country is awash in infections isn’t much of a consolation prize for the CCP. They’re keen to show the world that totalitarian tactics are keeping their people safe while westerners preaching freedom are forced to take to their sick beds. Having the Games take place at the very moment that lie is exposed — potentially with a subplot about China’s homemade vaccines proving ineffective — would be a black eye.

Exit question: Is Omicron the excuse western countries need to boycott the Games altogether? If they won’t do it to protest genocide in Xinjiang, they can claim that it’s too risky for athletes to gather at the moment.