Winning the Tour de France was just about the craziest thing the UAE cycling team could imagine doing in the middle of a global health crisis. Even as the squad rolled onto the Champs-Élysées with the leader’s yellow jersey last September, they could hardly believe they had pulled it off.
Soon that will rank only as the second most improbable feat UAE Team Emirates managed 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 Emirati authorities, the squad’s 100 or so cyclists and support staff will receive the Chinese Sinopharm shot when they touch down in Abu Dhabi for a training camp on Jan. 6, the team said. The vaccine became widely available in the country after completing its Phase III trial there earlier this month.
“We’re fortunate to be considered a relatively high priority team in terms of the UAE,” said Jeroen Swart, the team’s head of medicine.
How a multinational squad of noncitizen, nonresident athletes fell into the queue for a Chinese vaccine in the UAE is a uniquely modern story of globalized sports—and one that raises the possibility of “vaccine tourism” for those who can afford to travel to countries where inoculation is further along.
Of the 30 riders on UAE Team Emirates’ roster, only one is actually from the UAE. 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 is based in Italy. Very few of them would be eligible for the vaccine at home for several months.
But Gulf countries have long viewed sports teams as ideal vehicles for enhancing their reputations abroad. Over the past 20 years, they have poured so much cash into hosting domestic golf tournaments and buying foreign soccer teams that they often change the sport’s entire landscape.
Pro cycling was no different. In 2017, a Bahrain-backed squad joined the sport’s top level, followed a year later by the UAE team, which flies the Emirati flag and is backed by an Abu Dhabi construction magnate. Advantages of the UAE sponsorship include a reliable stream of income in an economically fragile sport, a warm-weather location for a winter training camp, and suddenly, a chance to get vaccinated months before the rest of the sports world.
UAE Team Emirates has been waiting for this moment longer than most. Back in February, it became one of the first sports outfits in the West to feel the direct impact of the coronavirus when two riders and six staff members tested positive during a weeklong race in the UAE. One of those riders, Colombian sprinter Fernando Gaviria, developed such a severe case that he spent the next few weeks in the hospital. His teammates waited out a 16-day quarantine in an Abu Dhabi hotel as the world shut down around them.
When the cycling season picked up again in the spring, covered by unprecedented protocols and an intensive testing regime, the team was back in action. But it made headlines again in October when Gaviria suffered an apparent reinfection, potentially making him one of the rarest cases on the planet.
By the end of next month, he will be a rarity for a different reason.
The UAE was only in a position to offer Gaviria and his teammates the vaccine, because the country completed its Phase III trial earlier this month, reporting 86% efficacy. During that process, some 31,000 volunteers received the vaccine, which “effectively safeguarded the UAE front line workers,” the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention said.
The government declined to comment on the specifics of securing doses for the cycling team.
Unlike the vaccines being rolled out in the U.S. and U.K., which rely on new messenger RNA technology, the Sinopharm inoculation is an inactivated vaccine that relies on the same principles as a regular flu shot. Because of that, the vaccine’s efficacy is slightly lower than those developed by companies such as Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE or
, but still showed “100% effectiveness in preventing moderate and severe cases of the disease,” according to Emirati health authorities.
“It’s certainly high enough to justify its use and to be confident in its ability to prevent infection,” Swart said.
Around 1 million people world-wide have already been administered the Sinopharm vaccine across China and nearly a dozen other countries, but not everything about the rollout has gone smoothly. Peru last week halted its trial after one volunteer displayed neurological issues that resulted in difficulty moving his legs. And while Peruvian health authorities believe the problem is probably unrelated, they have stopped administering the shot pending further examination.
As far as the cycling team is concerned, Swart said he had no reason to doubt the vaccine’s safety. The two-part shot, administered at a 14-day interval, won’t be mandatory for all staff and riders.
The team hopes that those who do receive it will be allowed to travel freely 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 rendered the already complicated logistics of pro cycling almost unworkable.
Though the team has received no guarantees, Swart said, “we expect that it will probably make it easier.”
Write to Joshua Robinson at [email protected]
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