How Tour de France winners got some of the first vaccines in the sport


Winning the Tour de France was just about the craziest thing the UAE cycling team could imagine doing in the midst of a global health crisis. Even as the team drove the Champs-Élysées in the leader’s yellow jersey last September, they could hardly believe they had made it.

Soon, this will be just the second most unlikely feat the UAE team has achieved during this pandemic. Next month, the defending Tour champions will likely become the first team in major professional sports to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

At the invitation of the Emirati authorities, the team’s 100 cyclists and support staff will receive the Chinese Sinopharm shot when they land in Abu Dhabi for a training camp on January 6, the team said. The vaccine became widely available in the country after completing its Phase III trial earlier this month.
“We are fortunate to be seen as a relatively high priority team when it comes to the UAE,” said Jeroen Swart, the team’s medical officer.

How a multinational team of non-citizen and non-resident athletes lined up for a Chinese vaccine in the UAE is a particularly modern story of globalized sport – and one that raises the possibility of “vaccine tourism” for those who can afford to travel to countries where inoculation is more advanced.

Of the 30 riders on the UAE Team Emirates list, only one is actually from the United Arab Emirates. The other 29 share 12 different nationalities, from Danish to Colombian. The man who won the Tour’s yellow jersey, Tadej Pogacar, is from Slovenia. Most of the team’s support staff are based in Italy. Very few of them would be eligible for the home vaccine for several months.

But the Gulf countries have long viewed sports teams as ideal vehicles to bolster their reputation abroad. Over the past 20 years, they have invested so much money in organizing domestic golf tournaments and purchasing foreign football teams that they often change the landscape of the sport.

Professional cycling was no different. In 2017, a Bahrain-backed team joined the sport’s highest level, followed a year later by the United Arab Emirates team, which flies the Emirati flag and is supported by a construction tycoon in Abu Dhabi. The benefits of UAE sponsorship include a reliable income stream in an economically fragile sport, a hot-weather spot for a winter training camp, and suddenly a chance to get the shot months before the rest of the world. sport.

UAE Team Emirates is waiting longer than most for this moment. In February, it became one of the first sportswear in the West to feel the direct impact of the coronavirus when two runners and six staff tested positive during a week-long run in the UAE. One of those runners, Colombian sprinter Fernando Gaviria, developed a case so severe that he spent the following weeks in hospital. His teammates waited for a 16-day quarantine in an Abu Dhabi hotel as the world closed around them.

When the cycling season resumed in the spring, covered by unprecedented protocols and an intensive testing regime, the team was back in action. But it hit the headlines again in October when Gaviria suffered an apparent reinfection, potentially making her one of the rarest cases on the planet.

By the end of next month, it will be a rarity for a different reason.

The UAE was only able to offer the vaccine to Gaviria and her teammates because the country completed its Phase III trial earlier this month, reporting 86% efficacy. During this process, some 31,000 volunteers received the vaccine, which “effectively protected UAE frontline workers,” the UAE Department of Health and Prevention said.

The government declined to comment on details of securing doses for the cycling team.

Unlike the vaccines being rolled out in the US and UK, which rely on new messenger RNA technology, Sinopharm Inoculation is an inactivated vaccine that is based on the same principles as a regular influenza vaccine. For this reason, the efficacy of the vaccine is slightly lower than those developed by companies such as Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE or Moderna Inc.

, but has always shown “100% effectiveness in preventing moderate and severe cases of the disease,” according to UAE health authorities.

“It is certainly high enough to justify its use and to be confident in its ability to prevent infection,” Swart said.

UAE Team Emirates driver Tadej Pogacar is the reigning Tour champion.

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Around 1 million people around the world have already received the Sinopharm vaccine across China and nearly a dozen other countries, but not everything has gone smoothly. Peru halted its trial last week after a volunteer presented with neurological problems that caused him difficulty moving his legs. And although Peruvian health officials believe the problem is probably unrelated, they have stopped administering the vaccine pending further investigation.

Regarding the cycling team, Swart said he had no reason to doubt the safety of the vaccine. Two-part shooting, administered at a 14 day interval, will not be mandatory for all staff and runners.

The team hopes those who receive it will be allowed free travel when the international cycling calendar resumes in early 2021, with races in Europe, the Middle East and South America. Various quarantine requirements over the past six months had made the already complicated logistics of professional cycling almost unworkable.

While the team has not received any guarantees, said Swart, “we anticipate that will probably make things easier.”

Write to Joshua Robinson at [email protected]

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