Government-Funded Zika Study to Use Olympic Athletes as Guinea Pigs

The American 4x100 relay team at the London Olympic Games in 2012. (Image: Citizen59/Flickr)
The American 4x100 relay team at the London Olympic Games in 2012. (Image: Citizen59/Flickr)

In an effort to learn more about the dreaded disease, the National Institutes of Health is funding a study in which a group of US athletes, coaches, and staff will be monitored for exposure to the Zika virus while attending the 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Brazil.


Earlier this year, the US Olympic Committee (USOC) said American athletes should consider skipping the Summer Olympics in Rio if they’re concerned about the Zika virus. At the same time, they’re being told that, as long as they take the necessary precautions, there’s nothing to worry about. But for the many who still insist on going, the athletes are now being asked to participate in a study designed to shore up many of the “unknown risks” associated with the disease, “especially to those of reproductive age.”

Talk about mixed messages. These Olympics are poised to be the strangest in recent memory.

With financial help from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), this new study will be conducted by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Its aims to improve our understanding of how Zika persists in the body and to identify any risk factors that influence the course of infections.

The research team, led by Carrie Byington from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, is hoping to enroll at least 1,000 men and women, the majority of whom will be involved in the US Olympic team in some form.

“We partnered with the USOC to improve knowledge of the dynamics of Zika infection, so that we can better protect the health of athletes and staff who will participate in the 2016 Games,” Byington said in a statement. “This ongoing relationship also opens avenues for long-term research that promises to benefit not only the Americas, but also other regions facing the emergence of the virus.”


Primary goals of the study will be to determine the rate of Zika virus infection, identify potential risk factors, detect where the virus persists in the body (e.g. blood, semen, vaginal secretions or saliva), and evaluate how long the virus remains in the body. Zika-infected participants will be monitored for up to a year.

“Monitoring the health and reproductive outcomes of members of the US Olympic team offers a unique opportunity to answer important questions and help address an ongoing public health emergency,” noted NICHD acting director Catherine Spong.


The US Centers for Disease Control will also be contributing by supplying Zika virus testing kits and offering training on how to use them. Around 3,000 USOC staff members are expected to travel to Brazil, along with their spouses and partners, who are also eligible to participate.



Senior staff reporter at Gizmodo specializing in astronomy, space exploration, SETI, archaeology, bioethics, animal intelligence, human enhancement, and risks posed by AI and other advanced tech.


Dr Emilio Lizardo


They are not God-damned guinea pigs. They are being asked to participate in a study by your own words. They have the option of not participating in the study, but are under no obligation to do so. Should they choose to participate, they will most likely have to sign an informed consent document that has been reviewed by a Human Investigations Committee and Investigational Review Board. There is minimal risk to them, they are supplying bodily fluids and filling out surveys. Their health and privacy will be protected by decades of law designed solely to do just that. If it weren’t for clinical trials like this there would be no science of modern medicine. People who participate in clinical trials are not “guinea pigs” they are honest-to-God heroes and we all benefit from what they do. Your click bait headline discourages that participation.

So congratulations, George. You’ve gone from muckraking annoyance to full blown public health hazard. Your parents must be proud of you but I will not fucking stand for it. Change the God-Damned headline!