Last October, two months before the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 emerged in central China, a group of public-health experts gathered in New York City for a simulation. Their objective was to determine how industry, national governments, and international institutions could work together to respond to a hypothetical “pandemic with potentially catastrophic consequences.”
Such a pandemic is no longer just a hypothetical. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it’s preparing for a coronavirus pandemic and the organization’s former director flatly declared that COVID-19 “will become a pandemic.”
The characteristics of the virus currently causing global havoc are remarkably similar to the one proposed in the simulation, dubbed “Event 201.” The simulated virus, called CAPS for Coronavirus Associated Pulmonary Syndrome, began in Brazilian pigs who passed it to farmers. It resulted in symptoms ranging from mild flu-like symptoms to pneumonia. Three months in, the hypothetical illness had caused 30,000 illnesses and 2,000 deaths.
The fake news report that played at the beginning of the simulation looks like a nightly news report from today.
How did humankind fare in the simulation? Not well. The scenario ended after 18 months with 65 million people dead. The Event 201 website sums it up that state of the pandemic a year and a half in:
The pandemic is beginning to slow due to the decreasing number of susceptible people. The pandemic will continue at some rate until there is an effective vaccine or until 80–90% of the global population has been exposed. From that point on, it is likely to be an endemic childhood disease.
In the weeks after the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan, event organizers were forced to answer questions about whether they predicted the current pandemic, and contend with a few conspiracy theories.
The exercise was not a prediction, organizers insist. “We are not now predicting that the nCoV-2019 outbreak will kill 65 million people,” the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security said in a statement. “Although our tabletop exercise included a mock novel coronavirus, the inputs we used for modeling the potential impact of that fictional virus are not similar to nCoV-2019.”
Rather than serving as a predictive tool, organizers say the simulation was more about identifying opportunities to improve the response to a potential pandemic. To that end, they produced seven recommendations “to diminish the potential impact and consequences of pandemics.”