Event 201 didn’t predict the Covid-19 pandemic

27th Apr 2020

“Event 201” was an exercise organised in October 2019 to simulate what might happen if there was a severe pandemic. We’ve been asked by readers to look into whether it really happened , why it wasn’t covered much in the media, and whether it’s simply a coincidence that it took part just months before the Covid-19 pandemic started.

The event was real but the fact it took place just before the pandemic started doesn’t mean the organisers had any secret knowledge, which has been suggested by some.  

The organisers said they ran the exercise because the world has seen a “growing number of epidemic events.” Previous similar exercises run by the same organisations and others have not been followed by similar outbreaks.

The specifics of the exercise should not be taken as predictions for the Covid-19 pandemic.

What was the event?

Event 201 was run by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It invited people from business, government and public health to simulate coordinating a policy response to a theoretical pandemic.

The simulation was based on a coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean the organisers knew about the one that causes Covid-19. The first known cases of Covid-19 weren’t publicly identified until December 2019, although media reports of unpublished data suggest that some early cases may have been infected in November that year.

Coronaviruses are a broad category of viruses which cause a number of different respiratory illnesses. One is the common cold, but the category also includes SARS (the severe acute respiratory syndrome, of which there were outbreaks in 2002 and 2004), and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in addition to Covid-19.

The organisers said: “The players’ responses to the scenario illuminated the need for cooperation among industry, national governments, key international institutions, and civil society, to avoid the catastrophic consequences that could arise from a large-scale pandemic.”

At the time, Event 201 was not covered widely by the media, but it was covered. In the UK it appears the Telegraph was the only major outlet to report on it.

It doesn’t tell us much about the Covid-19 outbreak

Event 201 took place just a few months before the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. This has led some to say that Event 201 “predicted” the current pandemic.

However, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has said: “the Center for Health Security and partners did not make a prediction during our tabletop exercise.

“For the scenario, we modeled a fictional coronavirus pandemic, but we explicitly stated that it was not a prediction.”

The participants in Event 201 estimated the fictional pandemic would kill 65 million people. Johns Hopkins added that this did not mean that it predicted that the Covid-19 outbreak would result in that many deaths and that the inputs it used were different from what’s being observed with Covid-19.

Neither coincidence nor conspiracy

As for the timing of the event, this isn’t just simple coincidence, nor is it a sign that, somehow, the organisers knew about this specific coronavirus before it was reported.

It’s more that the reason for running these exercises reflects what the scientific community knows about pandemics.

Johns Hopkins said at the time that “the world has seen a growing number of epidemic events” and “experts agree that it is only a matter of time before one of these epidemics becomes global.”

As well as Event 201 last year, it also ran a similar exercise called Clade X the year before which simulated the impact of a fictional virus with “flu-like symptoms”.

As for why the organisers modelled the impacts of a coronavirus as opposed to any other disease, again this isn’t a result of conspiracy or coincidence but expertise. For one, the world has seen recent outbreaks of coronaviruses such as MERS and SARS, so it’s a relevant type of virus to model.

And because coronaviruses are particularly good at evolving, scientists have previously warned that they are contenders for pandemics.