Simulation exercises such as “Catastrophic Contagion” are a normal part of pandemic preparedness; they don’t predict future pandemics
Tabletop exercises are a normal tool of pandemic preparedness training to improve international coordination and response. They are akin to fire drills, for example. Similar simulations in the past occurred without a corresponding pandemic breaking out in the real world.
Inadequate support: No available data indicates that the tabletop exercise “Catastrophic Contagion” revealed the place, date and nature of a future real-world pandemic.
Misleading: The fact that a real pandemic may occur following a pandemic simulation exercise merely highlights the importance of these public health preparedness training. It doesn’t mean that the exercise was a prediction of the real pandemic.
On 23 October 2022, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, held a pandemic preparedness training called “Catastrophic Contagion”. This exercise gathered public health officials and past or present health ministers from several countries and assessed how they would respond to a hypothetical rapidly propagating virus.
In their fictional scenario, a pandemic involving a new enterovirus would break out in South America in 2025 and spread rapidly, mostly targeting children and young adults. Enteroviruses are the most prevalent viruses in the world. They spread easily and especially affect children. While they usually cause mild symptoms, they can also infect the nervous system causing more severe diseases, such as polio. This explains their relevance as possible pandemic agents.
The fictional scenario of “Catastrophic Contagion” was enough for some to claim that Bill Gates and the WHO were already planning the next pandemic, providing us with a place and date for it. For instance, Natali and Clayton Morris, hosts of the YouTube channel “Redacted”, claimed that “Bill Gates and [the] WHO have announced when we will see the next pandemic” and advocated viewers to “plan [their] trips around this next pandemic” .
However, there is no evidence to support Natali and Clayton Morris’ claim. In fact, by picking up a perfectly normal public health activity and spinning it in a way that left viewers believing that officials were actively planning a pandemic, they created a piece of disinformation.
The basis of that claim is the fact that a similar tabletop exercise, called Event 201, that simulated a coronavirus pandemic, occurred just a couple of months prior to the first registered cases of COVID-19. Because the exercise and the start of the pandemic occurred relatively close to each other in time, many claimed that Event 201 was a sign that the COVID-19 pandemic had been planned.
As Health Feedback explained at the time, this claim has no basis in fact. The choice of a coronavirus as the infectious agent in Event 201 was simply a logical one since the 2003 SARS outbreak had demonstrated the pandemic risk of that virus family. Furthermore, the characteristics of the fictional coronavirus for Event 201 didn’t match the characteristics of SARS-CoV-2.
The notion that pandemic simulation exercises in themselves necessarily precede a future public health crisis is disproven by the fact that multiple past tabletop exercises similar to Event 201 or Catastrophic Contagion took place in the past and weren’t followed by real-world emergencies.
Simulation exercises are an essential part of public health emergency preparedness. They help national and global health agencies improve their response plan and enhance their coordination. Therefore, claiming that simulation exercises predict a real crisis about to come, just because one exercise coincidentally took place a few months before a genuine pandemic, is as baseless as blaming fire departments for fires just because they run periodic fire drills.
In summary, no information indicates that the exercise “Catastrophic Contagion” that took place in October 2022 predicts the nature, place, and date of a future pandemic. Tabletop exercises are a normal component of pandemic preparedness training and already happened in the past without a similar epidemic breaking out in the real world.