Monkeypox simulation event doesn’t mean outbreak was planned

24 August 2022
What was claimed

A threat preparedness exercise held in 2021, which used monkeypox as the theoretical virus, proves the current outbreak is planned.

Our verdict

There is no evidence to suggest this is true. Similar theoretical exercises have taken place many times in the past.

A large number of posts on Facebook suggest that a threat preparation exercise focused on an outbreak of monkeypox is evidence that the current outbreak of the virus was planned.

Social media users have shared screenshots of a paper published in 2021 by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-profit organisation “focused on reducing nuclear and biological threats imperiling humanity”, which breaks down a theoretical monkeypox outbreak beginning on 15 May 2022 in the fictional country of “Brinia”. 

This exercise was based on “reducing high-consequence biological threats” and improving prevention and response capabilities for any such event, by examining gaps in national and international security and pandemic preparedness. It is not evidence that the current monkeypox outbreak was intentional.

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Preparedness exercises are nothing new

The exercise detailed in the paper took place in March 2021, during an NTI collaboration with the Munich Security Conference, an annual conference on international security. 

The fictional scenario used in the exercise starts with 1,421 cases and four deaths within several weeks of the initial monkeypox outbreak in May 2022, and extends to more than three billion cases and 271 million deaths by December 2023. In this fictional scenario, the initial outbreak was caused by a terrorist attack, using a pathogen created in a laboratory. The paper makes a number of findings regarding pandemic preparedness, including a need for improved early warning systems and improved financing for some countries to enable them to prepare. 

There is no evidence to suggest that this preparation exercise had anything to do with the current outbreak of monkeypox, cases of which began to be reported in early May 2022 in countries where the virus was not already endemic. This is very similar to the original outbreak date used in the NTI scenario, but it does not mean the monkeypox outbreak was planned. 

The most recent World Health Organisation update, published on 10 August, states that there have been 27,814 laboratory confirmed cases of monkeypox associated with the current outbreak, with 11 deaths. 

The NTI has carried out similar table-top exercises in the past, with participants focusing on a flu-like virus emerging in the fictional country of “Vestia” in 2019 and an unexplained influenza linked to travellers from similarly fictional “Aplea” in 2020.  

In a statement on its website, published in May, the NTI said: “The fact that several countries are currently experiencing an outbreak of monkeypox is purely a coincidence. 

“The key takeaway from our exercise is not the specific pathogen in our fictional scenario; it’s the fact that the world is woefully unprepared to guard against future pandemics, and that we need to take urgent action to address this vulnerability.”

The NTI said that monkeypox was picked for the exercise as it “wanted to select a pathogen that would be a plausible fit for our scenario”, and the virus was one out of a “range of options offered by our expert advisers”. 

The statement added: “One of the factors in selecting monkeypox was the value of selecting a pathogen with different features than the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which encouraged exercise participants to consider issues beyond those that have already been highlighted by the current pandemic.”

Misleading comparisons to similar exercises before Covid-19 

Some of the social media posts we have seen about the NTI exercise also reference similar theoretical exercises that took place before Covid-19, which have been used before to argue that the pandemic was planned. 

We have written before about Event 201, an exercise organised in October 2019 by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which aimed to simulate what might happen if there was a severe pandemic.

The simulation was based on a coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean the organisers predicted Covid-19. The first known cases of Covid-19 weren’t publicly identified until December 2019.

As we wrote back in 2020, the selection of a coronavirus to model a theoretical pandemic wasn’t evidence of conspiracy or coincidence, but expertise, given the history of coronavirus epidemics like MERS and SARS, and the evolutionary characteristics of coronaviruses.

Image courtesy of Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regnery, CDC

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