By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - There may be only a one in a billion chance of failing a doping test due to the COVID-19 vaccine, but some athletes will still resist inoculation, scientists from the World Anti-Doping Agency and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) said on Tuesday.
While WADA's director of sciences and international partnerships Olivier Rabin said the chances of the vaccine leading to a possible doping test failure were so vanishingly small as to be almost non-existent, USOPC medical chief Jon Finnoff said take-up would still not be universal.
Finnoff told Reuters that like any segment of the general public, some athletes would be simply uncomfortable with getting a vaccine shot.
On top of that he said he had fielded more questions about whether the vaccine would hinder performance rather than enhance it.
"I have not had any athlete raise a concern specifically with me about whether the vaccines can cause a positive (doping) test," Finnoff told Reuters.
"But I have had athletes raise concerns about are there any long term ramifications associated with it, if I have the vaccine is there the potential that it will impede my performance?
"Part of what we what we are dealing with at the USOPC is really trying to educate people.
"There will likely be a mix of people who want the vaccine and a small percentage who do not."
WADA maintains athletes should have no hesitation in taking the vaccine with all research and data showing inoculation will have absolutely no impact on performance.
Rabin told Reuters he could not give a 100% guarantee that the vaccine would not lead to a positive doping test but that the probability was next to zero.
"Just imagine theoretically it is one chance out of a million or one billion," said Rabin. "We all agree there is absolutely no risk vis-a-vis anti-doping.
"When people ask me are you 100% sure my answer is I am fairly certain, I am 99.9% sure but I am not 100% sure.
"It is super, super low risk even probably a non-existent risk."
NOT IMPACT PERFORMANCE
Rabin was even more certain that COVID-19 vaccines would not impact performance negatively, unless taken in the days immediately ahead of competition, when any inoculation can produce minor side effects.
"You receive a vaccination and you develop a little bit of fever, shivers, you don't feel well. That can happen and that is normal for a lot of vaccines," explained Rabin. "Like any vaccines it would be very temporary.
"I can understand an athlete saying 'Look I am 48 hours away from a major competition is it a good time to get the vaccine?' I would say unless you really have to, maybe it is better to postpone by 48 or 72 hours in case you experience minor side effects."
While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said athletes would not be forced to get COVID-19 vaccinations ahead of the Tokyo Games, president Thomas Bach indicated they should as a “demonstration of solidarity” with the Japanese hosts.
The USOPC has yet to issue an official policy and is aware of the IOC's position, but Finnoff's opinion is that athletes should get a vaccine if possible, a stance echoed by WADA ahead of the July 23-Aug. 8 Games.
Finnoff said U.S. athletes will not be jumping any queues to get a shot, but the USOPC might consider purchasing vaccines when they become available to the general public.
"We are definitely investigating every potential opportunity for vaccinating our athletes when it is appropriately available to the general population," said Finnoff.
Rabin and Finnoff expressed overwhelming confidence in the vaccines, but there are other concerns around the mutations and variants to the virus that are surfacing.
"Certainly what gives us concerns is the mutation of viruses and whether there will be further mutations that lead to variants that are not only highly contagious but potentially more deadly and not prevented by our current vaccinations," said Finnoff.
"We just don't know where we are going to be in the next six to nine months going from the beginning of the Games to the end of Games."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)