America was just wiped out." Flashback to 2018 and a US pandemic simulation of a pneumonia virus released by a cult aiming to depopulate the world, starting in a US military base

From the New Yorker

It was in the ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C., when the worst pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu broke out. On cable news, there were reports of four hundred confirmed cases, mostly clustered in Frankfurt, Germany, but with infected individuals reported as far afield as Tokyo, Kabul, and Caracas. Brow furrowed, eyes widened, the anchorwoman’s tone was urgent as she described the spread of a new type of parainfluenza virus, called Clade X. Transmitted through inhalation, it left the infected contagious but otherwise unaffected for up to week before killing more than ten per cent of its victims.

In the ballroom with me, seated around a U-shaped table under glittering chandeliers, were ten senior political figures, an ad-hoc working group convened at the President’s request. The situation looked bad. At Ramstein Air Base, in southwest Germany, three U.S. service members were critically ill, and three infected Venezuelans warned that the outbreak there was much worse than authorities were admitting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vaccine would likely take more than a year to develop. Meanwhile, Australia, China, and South Africa had already imposed travel restrictions on flights from Germany and Venezuela. A bipartisan group of senators was calling for a similar travel ban; a recent poll had suggested that sixty-five per cent of the public supported them. “What should our priorities be?” the national-security adviser asked.

The room was divided. The health experts at the table warned against closing the borders. “This is an opportunity to do something that will achieve nothing except for diverting resources from real problems,” the Secretary of Homeland Security said. The director of the C.D.C. noted that disrupting global supply chains was a terrible idea, given that most personal protective equipment is imported from overseas. The Secretary of Defense was not convinced. “Look, I’m not talking about going out with our hands waving and our hair on fire,” he said. “But if the President is seen as not taking vigorous action, they’re going to start firing from the Hill.”

Fortunately—and, as you might have guessed by now—this was a fictional outbreak. “Clade X” was a daylong pandemic simulation held by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in May. The C.D.C. director was being played by a former holder of that job, the Secretary of Defense was the former Republican senator Jim Talent, and the Secretary of Homeland Security was played by Tara O’Toole, a former Under-Secretary in that department. Clade X turned out to be an engineered bioweapon, combining the virulence of Nipah virus with parainfluenza’s ease of transmission. It had been intentionally released by A Brighter Dawn, a fictitious group modelled on the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out the sarin-gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system, in 1995. A Brighter Dawn’s stated goal was to reduce the world’s population to pre-industrial levels. By the end of the day, which represented twenty months in the simulation, they had managed to kill a perfectly respectable hundred and fifty million people. “America was just wiped out,” Talent said, before heading to a post-event cocktail reception.

his is the third major pandemic exercise that the Center for Health Security has run. The first, called Dark Winter, was held in 2001 and simulated a smallpox attack on Oklahoma. Its timing, just a few months before 9/11, made its terrifying outcome—the near-complete breakdown of government and civil society—deeply resonant. Dark Winter is credited, in part, with spurring George W. Bush to pass Directive 51, a largely classified plan to insure the continuity of government in the event of a “catastrophic emergency.”

“I would say there has been enormous progress in our preparedness since then,” Tom Inglesby, the center’s director, who played the national-security adviser in Clade X, told me. These advances include new preparedness programs and offices at the C.D.C. and the Department of Health and Human Services; national stockpiling of vaccines and medications; and, at the international level, investments in emergency financing and infectious-disease infrastructure. According to an article that appeared last year in the British Medical Journal, however, the world remains “grossly underprepared.” Philanthropist-in-chief Bill Gates drew on models developed by the Institute for Disease Modeling, a venture founded by his former Microsoft colleague Nathan Myhrvold, to warn that, at our current state of readiness, roughly thirty-three million people would die within the first six months of a global pandemic similar to the 1918 flu.


Several challenges, however, were ones that could be solved with more planning and investment. Julie Gerberding, a former director of the C.D.C., pointed out that global vaccine-manufacturing capacity is insufficient to meet projected demand during a worldwide pandemic. Margaret Hamburg, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration who was playing the Health Secretary, argued in favor of an idea that has been floating around without funding for years: a clinical corps, equipped to travel to the source of outbreaks and try to contain them there before they reach pandemic proportions.