Covid-19 and Doping: Challenges, Checks and Cheating

By Sandrine Wyrich (@SunnyWyrich_)

The Covid-19 pandemic has paralysed various areas of sport, including the battle against doping. Alongside challenges around conducting tests, the emerging availability of coronavirus vaccines raises questions over whether the jabs might contain banned substances.

This leaves athletes in a dilemma: do they decline a vaccination or do they risk drug bans ahead of the Olympic/Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer?

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) informed that they “highly doubt” any complications will arise with the vaccines, but more checks will need to be carried out and definite guidelines will be made available.

Nick Wojek, UK Anti Doping’s (UKAD) Head of Science and Medicine, says he understands the new vaccine will prompt questions from athletes but is assertive that they have little to worry about:

“WADA have already confirmed that it is extremely unlikely that the RNA- or DNA sequences used for such vaccines violate anti-doping regulations. Equally, the risk that the excipients used for such vaccines will pose issues for clean sport is anticipated to be small.”

WADA director general Olivier Niggli speaks at a press conference about anti-doping testing during the pandemic and how WADA aims to ensure clean Olympic/Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

Athletes, however, are feeling less confident. Particularly the Paralympic community, who is likely to rank highly on the priority list and to be called for vaccination soon, raised concerns around the uncertainty of the vaccines’ status.

Tully Kearney, seven-time para-swimming champion for Great Britain, falls in the extremely vulnerable group due to cerebral palsy:

“I’m actually shocked that this is not being dealt with sooner. So do I risk potential serious illness or death from Covid or a doping ban and miss out on going to Tokyo?”

British powerlifter Ali Jawad has engaged in anti-doping research in recent years and he too sees issues around preliminary decisions on the new vaccines:

“What if vulnerable athletes are offered the vaccine before the guidelines are available? Does the athlete submit a retrospective TUE (therapeutic use exemption)? Strict liability cannot count in this instance.

“I’m not suggesting WADA doesn’t have athlete health in mind, but the communication is sending mixed messages. And if athletes are to be given the vaccine before guidelines are in place, then questions around the code’s flexibility need to be considered.”

WADA state they will continue to monitor the situation, but currently, three Covid-19 vaccines have already received a provisional “not prohibited” status. These coincide with the vaccines so far approved for clinical use in the UK: Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna.

The situation still is trickier for athletes in countries that have yet only approved the Sinovac, Sputnik or Covaxin vaccines which yet await clearance from WADA.

Scottish sprinter Zoey Clark, who is hoping to make her Olympic debut in Tokyo, believes that all athletes will “probably” have to be vaccinated for the Games to go ahead:

“If someone offered me the vaccine, I would 100 per cent take it.

“The Olympics is the pinnacle of your career and everything you work towards. Obviously, the uncertainty is there again for this year, but we have to prepare like it will go ahead.”

Benjamin Cohen from the International Testing Agency (ITA) speaks about challenges in anti-doping testing that came with the pandemic and how programmes have been adapted.

Covid-19 restrictions have significantly complicated doping test procedures. To ensure precautions do not turn into an open invitation for would-be cheaters, WADA director general Olivier Niggli emphasises that testing and monitoring athletes continues to ensure clean sport:

“In times when testing may be temporarily diminished and with limited sports events being held, there are other tools to maintain the integrity of the anti-doping system.

“For example, the Athlete Biological Passport can be used to assess the longer-term profile of each athlete; intelligence can lead to target-testing, and sample storage enables further analysis.”

Testing Agencies have introduced adapted procedures that ensure the health of athletes and doping control personnel is protected while conducting tests and collecting samples.

Potential sample manipulation is harder to detect due to the restrictions and anti-doping programmes remain short of their usual scope. But with the continuing efforts, even during the Covid-19 pandemic, would-be dopers cannot feel too safe.

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