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Fact Check-Pandemic preparedness scenario is not evidence of an orchestrated disease outbreak

Pandemic preparedness scenarios and symposiums are not proof that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned, nor are they a new occurrence. Scenarios are commonly used across various sectors, from geologists to firefighters, to be best prepared for the worst.

Training seminars and epidemiological reports that were held and released before 2020 have spread across social media and have been presented as proof that the COVID-19 outbreak was planned.

Claims resurfaced and gained fresh ground following an interview on ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ podcast in December 2021 where cardiologist Peter McCullough MD said the pandemic was a plan to “railroad people into mass vaccination”.

One clip alone of the claim had over 1.8 million views on Twitter at the time of writing (here).

According to McCullough, pharmaceutical company Moderna had begun developing its mRNA vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 prior to the pandemic. This is a false claim previously addressed by Reuters (here).

McCullough also pointed to a Johns Hopkins SPARS pandemic scenario from 2017 (here).

“They had a symposium, people showed up; they wrote up their symposium findings; they published this,” he told Rogan in the interview.

“It says it’s going to be a coronavirus. It’s going to be related to MERS and SARS. It’s going to come over to the United States. It’s going to shut down cities and frighten people. There’s going to be confusion regarding a drug – hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin – and we’re going to utilize all that to railroad the population to mass vaccination.”

McCullough concluded: “It’s laid out in the Johns Hopkins SPARS pandemic training seminar. The only thing they got wrong was the year. They said it was going to be 2025. Instead, it landed a few years early.”

This is not proof that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned ahead of time and orchestrated early. Indeed, reactive and proactive measures to combat the spread of disease stretch centuries.

What was the SPARS pandemic scenario?

The SPARS 2025-2028 scenario was not a symposium, as claimed by McCullough. It was a written report released by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in October 2017 as a self-guide exercise scenario for public health researchers and stakeholders to better understand what dilemmas could potentially arise in a pandemic (here). The research-informed scenario is viewable in full here.

In the report, a fictitious scenario is laid out, involving the outbreak of a novel coronavirus between the years 2025 and 2028. It details hypothetical hurdles such as communication issues, and efforts to find an effective drug against the disease (here).

“The people who wrote the story are experts in the clinical side of outbreaks and infectious disease, the sociocultural side, how people behave in the middle of an outbreak of infectious disease, people who come from the research, development and distribution side to vaccines and drugs, antivirals and other medical countermeasures,” said Dr Monica Schoch-Spana, Senior Associate at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in an interview with Reuters.

“So, when you bring together those kinds of experts to say, let’s write a plausible story about what is possible so that we can think about how to better protect ourselves, it’s going to ring true simply because it’s informed by evidence of what happened in the past.”

Schoch-Spana added that the experts could have “very easily” written a scenario like SPARS that instead looked at influenza but said: “We picked coronavirus because it is, among other viruses, capable like the influenza virus, of mutating and triggering a potential pandemic.”

Peter Rabinowitz, Co-Director of the University of Washington Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness, told Reuters it was unsurprising that training exercises would focus on a coronavirus.

This follows increased risk of pandemics following the outbreaks of H5N1 avian influenza, SARS, H1N1 influenza and Middle Eastern Respiratory syndrome (MERS) – and has resulted in international preparedness efforts such as Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA).

He added: “Based on the experience of recent epidemics, a pandemic flu or another novel coronavirus have been ongoing concerns, so it is not surprising that scenario planning exercises would involve these possibilities.”

Ultimately, pandemic scenarios are not predictions, said Graham Medley, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “There are some basic principles that we know will unfold.”

Speaking specifically about a public health preparedness report for winter 2021/22 in the United Kingdom (here), he detailed the possible challenges taken into consideration.

“What might happen? How will things play out? What do we know are challenges, what might be challenges and what are we not thinking of? What does it look like if everything goes well? What is the worst thing that can happen? These are the kind of questions that we are asking as we develop the scenarios. Then we focus on a few that are most illustrative and informative for policy and think about how decision makers could tackle them best. The result is a set of recommendations and thoughts that cover, ideally most, of the areas that decision makers should consider.”

He added: “People do this kind of thing naturally all the time. When deciding what clothes to wear the considerations are the weather, what others will be wearing, what will the environment be like etc. If you take a cardigan in case the air turns chilly, and it does, then you were right. If you always get it right, then it just means that you are very good at it.”

Is pandemic preparedness new?

“Planned efforts to control the spread of infectious disease are as old as human recorded history,” said Esyllt Jones, professor of history with a specialization in the history of health and disease in Canada and the modern world.

“Health care policies such as quarantines, travel restrictions, vaccination campaigns and, eventually, international agencies and cooperation became more effectively organized during the age of epidemics that accompanied the growth of modern capitalism and the state.”

According to Jones, modern-day pandemic preparedness partly arose out of an “expected re-occurrence” of the 1918 influenza outbreak.

“That pandemic was no hoax: 50 million people died globally. This catastrophe changed public health and it increased the public’s awareness of the need for investment in stronger public health infrastructures, based on cooperation and shared sense of social responsibility,” she added.

What about outside of pandemics?

Hypothetical scenarios and training programmes spread much further than epidemiology.

For instance, the ‘Hurricane Pam’ scenario was created in 2004, using realistic weather data to assist in developing response plans for a potential hurricane in Louisiana (here), (here), (here).

In 2008, Dr Lucy Jones of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and 300 scientists presented the ‘ShakeOut’ scenario – a comprehensive story of what could occur if a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck along the southernmost San Andreas fault (pubs.usgs.gov/of/2008/1150/), (here).

‘ShakeOut’ is a now drill that occurs annually to prepare for an earthquake and practice safety steps (here).

Other examples include training scenarios from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) (see here), and the International Tsunami Information Center (ITIC) (here).

VERDICT

False. Pandemic preparedness scenarios are not predictions. This is not evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was deliberately orchestrated.

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

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