Event 201 isn’t evidence that authorities knew or planned the COVID-19 pandemic
Awareness of the risks of a pandemic existed before the emergence of COVID-19. The pandemic potential of coronaviruses has been known since at least the SARS outbreak of 2003. This group of viruses is therefore a logical choice for pandemic preparedness events such as Event 201. Thus, the fact that Event 201 occurred months before the COVID-19 is not evidence that the COVID-19 was already known or planned.
Inadequate support: Event 201, which happened in October 2019, featured a simulated coronavirus pandemic; this can be explained by the fact that coronaviruses were a known pandemic risk. Similar events had already been held in the past. The claim doesn’t provide evidence showing that the event was in fact related to COVID-19.
Health Feedback and other outlets debunked the recurring claim that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned or expected on multiple occasions. Still, this didn’t stop Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent opponent of vaccination who has been banned from Instagram for propagating COVID-19-related misinformation, from reiterating this claim during an interview hosted by comedian Theo Von in December 2021.
During the interview, Kennedy discussed a pandemic simulation event called Event 201 was held in New York on 18 October 2019, a couple of months before the first registered cases of COVID-19.
Event 201 was an actual event held jointly by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Economic Forum. The aim of Event 201 was to simulate the response of public and private sector leaders in the face of a new pandemic and illustrate “areas where public/private partnerships will be necessary during the response to a severe pandemic in order to diminish large-scale economic and societal consequences”.
The Event 201 simulation scenario involved a “novel zoonotic coronavirus transmitted from bats to pigs to people” first spreading in Brazil before reaching the rest of the world. The virus used in the simulation was “modeled largely on SARS, but it is more transmissible in the community setting by people with mild symptoms”.
The Event 201 scenario featured an unknown coronavirus, which belongs to the same family of viruses that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. As the event occurred months before the outbreak of COVID-19, Kennedy and others claimed that this event is evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic had been expected or orchestrated, or that authorities already knew about it in mid-October 2019. However, available evidence doesn’t support that claim, as we show below.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which organized Event 201, clarified that the scenario was purely fictional and wasn’t based on any purported preexisting knowledge of SARS-CoV-2: “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 [SARS-CoV-2]”.
Even without any preexisting knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, the choice of a coronavirus for the scenario makes sense. Coronaviruses are a known group of respiratory viruses that infect humans. Additionally, experts already knew that animals such as bats were carriers of many poorly described coronaviruses, making them a living reservoir of viruses that could potentially infect humans.
It was also an established fact that coronaviruses can be deadly to humans. Indeed, the 2003 SARS outbreak claimed 774 lives and was caused by a coronavirus unknown before the outbreak, SARS-CoV-1. SARS-CoV-1 passed from animals to humans, similar to the fictional scenario of Event 201.
Therefore, a coronavirus pandemic was a rational choice for a pandemic preparedness training event. David Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University, told FactCheck.org that “Respiratory viruses like coronavirus, like SARS, like MERS are good examples to use in a format like [Event 201] because of the facility in which they can spread”.
In fact, pandemic simulation exercises are routine, as they are a critical part of emergency preparedness, and Event 201 is no exception. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security organized similar virus outbreak simulations in previous years, with different scenarios involving viruses other than coronaviruses. In 2001, it simulated an outbreak of smallpox, whose infectious agent belongs to the orthopoxvirus genus. In 2018, it simulated a pandemic of a virus with traits from both the human parainfluenza virus, belonging to the paramyxovirus genus, and the Nipah virus, belonging to the Henipavirus. The UK and other countries have also conducted pandemic or outbreak simulation exercises, like Exercise Winter Willow and foot and mouth disease in EU countries. All the evidence we have indicates that the occurrence of Event 201 months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic is by coincidence, not design.
Altogether, this indicates that Event 201 doesn’t provide evidence that some authorities already knew about SARS-CoV-2. The organization of the event and the choice of the scenario were justified and within expectations due to the established importance of coronaviruses’ implications for public health responses to a pandemic.
- 1 – Reddin et al. (2021) Evaluating simulations as preparation for health crises like CoVID-19: Insights on incorporating simulation exercises for effective response. International Journal of Disaster Risks Reduction.