CBC Sports has learned that the Beijing Olympic Committee is using a higher testing threshold to detect positive cases of COVID-19, making it more difficult for Canadian athletes, especially those who have recently recovered from the virus, to produce a negative test upon arrival in China.
Canadian Olympic Committee Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mike Wilkinson confirmed Monday afternoon that the CT (Cycle Threshold) value used in China to detect a positive test is 40.
For context, many places in Canada use 35 as a cut-off value – the lower the number, the more contagious a person is. The higher the number, the less infectious the person is.
“If you’re borderline CT, there’s no guarantee it will be positive or negative due to persistent virus shedding,” Dr. Wilkinson said, referring to athletes who have recently tested positive.
The NBA and NHL use 30 as their CT value. The NFL has set its threshold at 35.
“Typically, [at] From CT numbers of 30 or more, we start to think people are less infectious. Is it perfect, no, but it’s pretty good,” said infectious disease specialist Dr Isaac Bogoch.
Dr Bogoch is concerned about the level at which China has set its threshold for the Games.
“This basically means that anyone with a recent infection has a fair chance of testing positive in China, even if they have had multiple negative tests in Canada.”
There have been dozens of Canadian Olympians who have tested positive in recent weeks. Canadian bobsleigh and short track speed skating teams have experienced outbreaks. The women’s hockey team also had a high number of cases.
Figure skating duo Vanessa James and Eric Radford tested positive over Christmas. And a number of Canada’s long track speed skaters have also recently recovered from the virus.
All Games participants, if recovering from COVID-19 30 days or less after departure, must first produce three negative PCR tests. These documents are then submitted to the Beijing Olympic Committee. If the participant obtains approval, two additional tests before departure, 96 and 72 hours before the flight to Beijing, must be produced.
“It looks like they treat PCR positives as PCR positives and don’t recognize the protective benefit a recently recovered person would have. More transparency would help,” Dr. Bogoch said.
There is one final hoop for all attendees to jump through upon arrival in China, and this once again produces a negative PCR test at the airport. If someone is positive and asymptomatic, they are placed in isolation in a nearby hotel.
Two more negative tests must then be released in what is called a “closed loop” system to compete in the Olympics.
Negative at home, positive in Beijing?
There are already cases where people who have produced the negative PCR tests required in their country return a positive result upon arrival in Beijing.
“If someone has had a recent infection, has clear evidence of it, and is not transmissible, I wouldn’t be concerned with a residual PCR test,” Bogoch said.
“It makes no sense to test someone under these circumstances or at the very least to make an important decision given the circumstances.”
A medical expert group was made up of 20 members, including representatives from the Chinese Center for Disease Control, Beijing CDC and five international representatives from the IOC, IPC and International Winter Federations.
The jury will treat each case individually. Dr. Wilkinson says the panel is already working, but he hasn’t yet submitted paperwork for a Canadian athlete at this point.
Yet he is preparing for it.
“It’s something that we reported a long time ago as a source of stress for athletes. Every time you take a test, you have that doubt and that anxiety,” Dr. Wilkinson said.
“We need to prove that if someone tests positive it’s not an acute infection to enter China. We have implemented some additional testing for Canadians so that we can flag anyone who may test positive early. inadvertently and may not know they had COVID.”
IOC remains confident in protocols
As for the IOC, in a statement to CBC Sports, the organization said it was confident in its protocols heading into the Games.
“We draw on the experiences of other international sporting events, including the success of the Tokyo 2020 Games and the current COVID-19 policy in China,” the statement said.
Team Canada has organized a number of charter flights to bring athletes and support staff to Beijing. The first flight is due to take off on January 26.
Dr. Wilkinson says the charter was very intentional.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure they get to Beijing. We’re working from every angle to make sure that if they have a false positive or a persistent shedding, they get to Beijing. The problem is that if you get a new infection within a few days of leaving. That’s another story,” Dr. Wilkinson said.
“That’s why we tell everyone to be extremely careful in the two weeks before departure. One of the advantages of a charter is that we control the seating plan. So we know what a definition of close contact and how many seats should be between people.”
A close contact is anyone seated two rows in front of or behind the person who tested positive.
“Everyone wants to compete. I get it,” Dr. Bogoch said.
“It’s important to communicate uncertainty though. Because there is uncertainty and you can’t give definitive answers when there are no definitive answers to give. It’s neither fair nor honest.”
The opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics is scheduled for February 4.