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Fact Check-No evidence that 2021 Nuclear Threat Initiative exercise proves monkeypox outbreak was planned

Social media users are sharing a Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) paper on a 2021 threat preparation exercise where monkeypox was used in a preparedness scenario and falsely claiming that this proves the recent outbreak of the disease was planned.

The NTI is nonprofit organization working to reduce and prevent nuclear and biological threats (www.nti.org/).

Examples can be seen (here) and (here text in one post reads: “From the Munich security conference in 2021. Simulating a monkeypox outbreak. Full document – [link] They ALWAYS tell us.”

The NTI paper (here) says that NTI partnered with the Munich Security Conference in March 2021 for a tabletop exercise (www.ready.gov/exercises) on reducing “high-consequence biological threats”.

In the NTI scenario, an unusual strain of a monkeypox emerged from a fictional country called “Brinia” as a terrorist attack “using a pathogen engineered in a laboratory with inadequate biosafety and biosecurity provisions and weak oversight.” In the scenario, the virus causes more than 3 billion cases with 270 million deaths globally. That would be a 9% mortality rate, per numbers in the NTI scenario.

Pandemic preparedness scenarios and symposiums are not proof that pandemics are planned, nor are these scenarios a new occurrence. They are commonly used across by a range of professions such as geologists or firefighters, to prepare for worst case scenarios.

Reuters has previously debunked claims that various pandemic preparedness scenarios proved the COVID-19 pandemic was planned or predicted (here), (here).

Jaime Yassif, vice president of Global Biological Policy and Programs at NTI, told Reuters via email that NTI designed a fictional scenario to discuss “urgently needed improvements in global capabilities to prevent and respond to pandemics” and selected monkeypox from the options offered by expert advisers as it was a plausible fit for this scenario.

“The fact that several countries are currently experiencing an outbreak of monkeypox is purely a coincidence,” Yassif said. “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 we need to take urgent action to address this vulnerability.”

“We have no reason to believe that the current monkeypox outbreak involves an engineered virus, as we have not seen any compelling evidence that would support such a claim,” Yassif said.

Another exercise done by NTI and the Munich Security Conference in February 2022 (here), for example, discussed a fictional virus called “Akhmeta”. More past NTI scenarios are viewable (here) and (here).

Pandemic preparedness plans have existed for years. A 2009 document by the Pan American Health Organization can be seen (here). A 2008 report by the American Civil Liberties Union can be seen (here).

Reuters’ reporting on the monkeypox outbreak can be seen (here).

As of May 21, 2022, 92 confirmed cases and 28 suspected cases of monkeypox have been reported from 12 member states that are not endemic for the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

A U.S. public health official told reporters at a briefing on May 20, 2022 that the risk to the general public is low at this time. The monkeypox virus is related to smallpox, but is usually milder, particularly the West African strain of the virus that was identified in a U.S. case, which has a fatality rate of around 1%. Most people fully recover in two to four weeks, the official said (here).

In terms of timing, there is no evidence this current outbreak was planned.

"Viruses are nothing new and expected," Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, told Reuters, for an explainer on the disease that can be seen (here).

Rasmussen said several factors, including increased global travel as well as climate change, have accelerated the emergence and spread of viruses. The world is also more on alert to new outbreaks of any kind in the wake of the COVID pandemic, she said.

There have also been other monkeypox outbreaks in the past, discrediting the idea that the current outbreak is something new or intentionally planned. The WHO says (here) that a monkeypox outbreak has been happening in Nigeria since 2017 with 218 cases. Since 1970, outbreaks have been reported in nine other countries in central and western Africa.

Monkeypox was also identified in the UK and the U.S. in 2021, for example (here).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain (here.) that the virus was discovered in 1958 during two outbreaks in colonies of monkeys that were kept for research.

VERDICT

No evidence. There is no evidence that a 2021 pandemic preparedness exercise using the monkeypox virus is proof that the recent monkeypox outbreak was planned.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work  here  .         

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