If the seeds of a pandemic illness were planted tomorrow, how would the world fare? Well, according to a simulation carried out on Friday by Johns Hopkins University, the answer is: terribly.
At a hotel near New York City’s Central Park, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security hosted a pandemic exercise dubbed Event 201. It enlisted 15 public health experts and leaders from governments and industries to try to figure out the best course of action if a horrific pandemic were to tear its way across the globe. The simulation came stocked with expert briefings and news updates from the fictional GNN, complete with talking head segments.
The pandemic was modeled after real-life close calls. The fictional plague was a coronavirus, related to the germs that cause SARS and MERS, that first spread from pigs in South America to farm workers. But unlike its cousins, the pretend virus, coined CAPS or coronavirus acute pulmonary syndrome, was better at transmitting itself from person to person.
“This virus was basically SARS on steroids,” Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Center for Health Security and project director of Event 201, told Gizmodo.
Though the assembled experts were given the opportunity to offer advice and recommendations on how to turn the tide against CAPS, the simulation played out more like a hopeless boss battle in a video game.
Within the first few months, CAPS spread to several countries, aided by international travel and the fact that, like with many real-life diseases, not all people infected with the virus ended up sick and others only experienced mild flu-like symptoms. As it raged on in poorer and richer countries alike, governments and pundits squabbled about where to allocate money and resources, including experimental antiviral drugs. Social media outlets also fanned the flames by allowing trolls and even governments to spread disinformation about CAPS, such as blaming foreigners for the problem; that in turn made people even less likely to trust public health experts.
“We’re seeing right now, with recent outbreaks like Ebola, that social media plays a big role, both positively and negatively,” Toner said. “It’s how many people get their news now, but it’s also how rumors and misinformation get propagated.”
Unlike the sort of cataclysmic outbreaks imagined by zombie movies, the fatality rate of CAPS only ended up being 10 percent. But because it was so easily transmitted and so widespread, the exercise still ended with 65 million dead worldwide—a toll that would eclipse the deadliest pandemic to date, the 1918 Spanish flu that killed over 20 million people. In addition to the sheer number of people left sick or dead, CAPS gutted the global economy. People refused to leave their homes or go to work; travel and the internet was shut down in some corners of the world, and the tourism industry cratered along with it.
“There’s almost no chance a real pandemic would wipe out humanity. But it could wipe out 5 to 10 percent of humanity—and that’s a number and impact far bigger than people imagine,” Toner said.
According to Johns Hopkins, the exercise was meant to illustrate how destructive a perfectly plausible pandemic could be, as well as how ill-equipped we are right now to respond. By the time something like CAPS strikes, we’ve already lost half the battle.
“There was nothing the players in this exercise could have done, because we think that’s the reality. Once a serious pandemic starts, whatever you do is not going to affect the outcome much. The real work is between now and the next pandemic,” Toner said. “Public health experts have been talking about pandemic preparedness for decades now, but most of the resources are going to come from the private sector—the drugs, the vaccines, the planes to transport them. And we don’t think they’ve been sufficiently prepared.”
Governments, corporations, and public health organizations need to devise plans together right now to tackle a large pandemic, as well as increase funding to pandemic preparedness. These plans would include devising how to stockpile and best distribute protective gear and other medical supplies to health workers on a massive scale; figuring out the best way to keep travel stable and safe; and short-circuiting attempts by bad actors to spread rumors on social media.