IOC to or­der that Rio test sites of wa­ter events for sewage viruses


The In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC) said Sun­day it will or­der test­ing for dis­ease-caus­ing viruses in the sewage-pol­luted wa­ters where ath­letes will com­pete in next year’s Rio de Janeiro Games.

Be­fore, the IOC and lo­cal Olympic or­ga­niz­ers in Rio said they would only test for bac­te­ria in the wa­ter, as Brazil and vir­tu­ally all na­tions only man­date such test­ing to de­ter­mine the safety of recre­ational wa­ters.

But af­ter an As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished last week re­vealed high counts of viruses di­rectly linked to hu­man sewage in the Olympic wa­ters, the IOC re­versed course af­ter be­ing ad­vised by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO) that it should ex­pand its test­ing.

“The WHO is say­ing they are rec­om­mend­ing vi­ral test­ing,” IOC med­i­cal di­rec­tor Dr. Richard Bud­gett told the AP. “We’ve al­ways said we will fol­low the ex­pert ad­vice, so we will now be ask­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate author­i­ties in Rio to fol­low the ex­pert ad­vice which is for vi­ral test­ing. We have to fol­low the best ex­pert ad­vice.”

On Satur­day, the In­ter­na­tional Sail­ing Fed­er­a­tion be­came the first to break with the IOC’s in­sis­tence on bac­te­ria-only test­ing, say­ing it would do its own in­de­pen­dent tests for viruses.

“We’re go­ing to find some­one who can do the test­ing for us that can safely cover what we need to know from a virus per­spec­tive as well as the bac­te­ria per­spec­tive,” said Peter Sowrey, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the ISAF. “That’s my plan.”

That came af­ter the WHO told the AP on Satur­day that it had ad­vised the IOC to test for viruses.

A five-month AP anal­y­sis of wa­ter at each of the venues where about 1,400 Olympic ath­letes will have con­tact with wa­ter showed dan­ger­ously high lev­els of viruses from sewage.

The AP com­mis­sioned four rounds of test­ing in each of those three Olympic wa­ter venues, and also in the surf off Ipanema Beach, which is pop­u­lar with tourists but where no events will be held. Thirty-seven sam­ples were checked for three types of hu­man ade­n­ovirus, as well as ro­tavirus, en­terovirus and fe­cal co­l­iforms.

The AP vi­ral test­ing, which will con­tinue in the com­ing year, found not one wa­ter venue safe for swimming or boating, ac­cord­ing to global wa­ter ex­perts who an­a­lyzed the AP data. A risk as­sess­ment done based on the AP’s study found that ath­letes who in­gest just three tea­spoons of wa­ter have a 99 per­cent chance of be­ing in­fected by a virus — though that does not au­to­mat­i­cally mean they would fall ill. That de­pends upon a per­son’s im­mune sys­tem and a num­ber of other fac­tors.

The con­cen­tra­tions of the viruses in all AP sam­ples were roughly equiv­a­lent to that seen in raw sewage — even at one of the least­pol­luted ar­eas tested, Copaca­bana Beach, where marathon and triathlon swimming will take place and where many of the ex­pected 350,000 for­eign tourists may take a dip.

In Rio, much of sewage goes un­treated and runs down hill­side ditches and streams into Olympic wa­ter venues that are lit­tered with float­ing rub­bish, house­hold waste, and even dead an­i­mals.

The pol­lu­tion prob­lem has been around for decades, and has sparked what top med­i­cal ex­perts in Rio call an en­demic public health cri­sis be­cause of the dirty wa­ter in this oth­er­wise stun­ningly gor­geous city cir­cled by At­lantic rain­for­est and golden sand beaches.

On Sun­day, ath­letes com­peted un­der a blaz­ing Rio sun in an Olympic test event in the triathlon.

“It’s been an in­ter­est­ing learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence over the last few days. I think some ath­letes went back to Bi­ol­ogy 101 to learn the dif­fer­ence be­tween bac­te­ria and viruses,” said Amer­i­can triath­lete Sarah True, who has qual­i­fied for next year’s Olympics. “It’s kind of eye-open­ing for me that peo­ple didn’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate the two.”

She said that for the ath­letes, “ob­vi­ously it’s a con­cern, it’s a risk” but that “ul­ti­mately the Olympic dream is so strong that some­times we put the pur­suit of ex­cel­lence above our health.”

True said she didn’t think the Olympic venue could be moved from Copaca­bana even if the IOC’s tests also find high vi­ral counts.

“We can’t move,” she said. “Ul­ti­mately too much money has been in­vested.”

So far, nei­ther the IOC nor the sail­ing fed­er­a­tion has said who would do their test­ing. Vi­rol­ogy ex­perts in Brazil say there are only three or four labs with the molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy equip­ment and trained sci­en­tists who can carry out the test­ing for viruses in wa­ter.

The AP’s tests are be­ing con­ducted by Fer­nando Spilki, a re­spected vi­rol­o­gist who is a board mem­ber of the Brazil­ian So­ci­ety for Vi­rol­ogy and editor of its sci­en­tific jour­nal. He is not be­ing paid by the AP to con­duct the test­ing, though the AP is pur­chas­ing the lab ma­te­ri­als re­quired to carry out the re­search.

When Rio was awarded the games in 2009, it promised clean­ing its wa­ters would be an Olympic legacy. But Rio Mayor Ed­uardo Paes has re­peat­edly ac­knowl­edged this will not be done, call­ing it a “lost op­por­tu­nity.”


Triath­letes run to­ward the wa­ter at the start of a women’s triathlon Olympic qual­i­fi­ca­tion event in Rio de Janeiro, Sun­day, Aug. 2.

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