Some believe the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of bioterrorism. There is also a large body of scientific evidence that shows that animals spread the COVID-19 virus to humans. Whatever the fact may be, the pandemic we are currently living through has opened the public’s eyes to the effects of bioterrorism.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “A biological attack is the intentional release of a pathogen (disease-causing agent) or biotoxin (poisonous substance produced by a living organism) against humans, plants, or animals.” The goal of a biological attack is to cause illness, fear, death, societal disruption, and economic damage.
Many people are most familiar with bioterrorism from movies like 28 Days Later and books like Stephen King’s The Stand. But, bioterrorism isn’t fiction. There is a reason the Geneva Convention of 1925 prohibits “bacteriological methods of warfare.”
Throughout history, bioterrorism has been used as a type of warfare. Here are some examples:
- In WWI, Germans infected allied livestock with anthrax.
- In WWII, plague-infected fleas were dropped in China, resulting in over 50,000 deaths.
- In 1984, a cult put salmonella bacteria in salad bars in Oregon to prevent people from voting in elections.
- In the 1990s, a cult produced a chemical attack with Sarin nerve agent in Tokyo.
- In 2001, U.S. citizens were infected with anthrax through U.S. Postal Service deliveries.
As you can see, even though the Geneva Convention forbids bioterrorism, we are still at risk of it happening. That’s why “the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, hosted a senior-level war game examining the national security, intergovernmental, and information challenges of a biological attack on the American homeland” in 2001 (Center for Health Security).
It was called Operation Dark Winter.
The facts about Operation Dark Winter
On June 22-23, 2001, these groups created a senior-level war game that simulated a smallpox attack on the United States known as “Dark Winter.” Essentially, it was a mock version of a widespread smallpox attack. On these dates, senior policymakers and U.S. officials meet for the simulation at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
According to Shining Light on Dark Winter, “Dark Winter was a ‘tabletop’ exercise. Decision makers were presented with a fictional scenario and asked to react to the facts and context of the scenario, establish strategies, and make policy decisions. To the extent possible, the decisions made were incorporated into the evolving exercise, so that key decisions affected the evolution and outcomes of the scenario.”
In the scenario, members of the National Security Council (NSC) met to discuss a developing situation in southwest Asia, but they received word of a smallpox outbreak in Oklahoma, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. They are briefed on the outbreak, the time between exposure and symptoms developing, and the lack of vaccines. The NSC was tasked with determining both the cause of the outbreak and how to contain it.
Ultimately, the war game ended without any clear resolution and enormous civilian fatalities.
The purpose of Operation Dark Winter
In Foreign Policy’s article, “America’s Pandemic War Games Don’t End Well,” Mark Perry explains:
“The Dark Winter exercise ended on the second day of the simulation after three long sessions—and purposely without resolution. But then, the exercise’s goal was not to predict the future but to dramatize the issues faced by the federal government during a nationwide health crisis. In this it masterfully succeeded, showing that what begins as a localized disease outbreak (of smallpox appearing in Oklahoma City and then in two other densely populated urban areas) can quickly become a crisis that envelopes the entire nation and the world: State borders become chokepoints crowded with those fleeing the disease, Canada and Mexico close their borders with the United States, and foreign nations restrict the travel of American citizens.”
Ultimately, the purpose of the wargame was to highlight the vulnerabilities in our healthcare systems and policies by putting them in a worst-case, but plausible scenario. Operation Dark Winter went on to shape 10 years of biological preparedness policy.
The findings of Operation Dark Winter
The Center for Health Security released the 5 key findings from Operation Dark Winter relating to our healthcare system and our country’s ability to handle a bioterrorism event, which are listed below.
- An attack on the United States with biological weapons could threaten vital national security interests. Massive civilian casualties, breakdown in essential institutions, violation of democratic processes, civil disorder, loss of confidence in government and reduced U.S. strategic flexibility abroad are among the ways a biological attack might compromise U.S. security.
- Current organizational structures and capabilities are not well suited for the management of a biowarfare attack. Major "fault lines" exist between different levels of government (federal, state, and local), between government and the private sector, among different institutions and agencies, and within the public and private sector. These "disconnects" could impede situational awareness and compromise the ability to limit loss of life, suffering, and economic damage.
- There is no surge capability in the U.S. healthcare and public health systems, or in the pharmaceutical and vaccine industries. This institutionally limited surge capacity could result in hospitals being overwhelmed and becoming inoperable, and it could impede public health agencies' analysis of the scope, source, and progress of the epidemic, their ability to educate and reassure the public, and their capacity to limit casualties and the spread of disease.
- Dealing with the media will be a major immediate challenge for all levels of government. Information management and communication (e.g., dealing with the press effectively, communication with citizens, maintaining the information flows necessary for command and control at all institutional levels) will be a critical element in crisis/consequence management.
- Should a contagious bioweapon pathogen be used, containing the spread of disease will present significant ethical, political, cultural, operational, and legal challenges.
Unfortunately, these findings should have prepared public officials for the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as you can see, many of the Center for Health Security’s predictions have proven true.
Why the COVID-19 pandemic is compared to another disease simulation
The well-known Operation Dark Winter disease simulation was the first of its kind, but it was not the last. Eerily enough, there was another disease simulation in 2019 known as Event 201 that appears to have simulated what America is currently experiencing.
In the Event 201 scenario, an outbreak of a novel coronavirus (a respiratory illness) is transmitted from bats to pigs to humans. The outbreak begins in South America, and from there, it explodes. Air travel brings the coronavirus to the United States. In the scenario, some countries contain it at first only to discover it continues to be reintroduced and spread. Additionally, there is no vaccine for the coronavirus, and experts don’t expect one for a year. In the end, 65 million people die, and there are significant economic consequences globally.
If you think that sounds disconcertingly similar to COVID-19, you are not alone. So many people contacted the Center for Health Security about the wargame simulation predicting COVID-19 that they were forced to release a statement.
“In October 2019, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security hosted a pandemic tabletop exercise called Event 201 with partners, the World Economic Forum and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. […] To be clear, 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. Instead, the exercise served to highlight preparedness and response challenges that would likely arise in a very severe pandemic. We are not now predicting that the nCoV-2019 outbreak will kill 65 million people. Although our tabletop exercise included a mock novel coronavirus, the inputs we used for modeling the potential impact of that fictional virus are not similar to nCoV-2019.”
Even so, the evidence is clear. The United States needs to study the key findings of these war game simulations and better prepare. But so do we.
How to prepare for bioterrorism
The sad truth is that bioterrorism is a real threat to the American people – so much so that there are entire government web pages dedicated to teaching us how to prepare. Ready.Gov recommends taking these steps to prepare for a possible biological threat:
- Have an emergency kit
- Create a family emergency plan.
- Stay up-to-date with immunizations.
- Invest in a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter.
As we have shared with you many times recently, those that know what’s coming are using today to prepare. Maybe, a Dark Winter.
Stay vigilant and be prepared, friends.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply